Is This the End of the World as We Know It? I Hope Not.

Is This the End of the World as We Know It? I Hope Not.
Linda E. Mitchell
Martha Jane Phillips Starr Missouri Distinguished Endowed Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies
University of Missouri—Kansas City

April 16, 2020

Faced with massive budget shortfalls in the wake of the novel coronavirus epidemic, Missouri governor Mike Parson—a self-identified “champion” of higher education—announced that he would manage the shortfall using Missouri’s knee-jerk go-to strategy of obliterating the state allocation to higher education. University of Missouri President Mun Choi subsequently announced huge budget cuts for the four UM System universities, leading to layoffs, program cancellations, hiring freezes, freezing of academic travel and non-sponsored research funds, and, at least at UMKC, a “temporary” inflation of the teaching loads of regular faculty to accommodate the courses usually staffed by adjuncts and graduate instructors.

The announcement of state-allocation cuts, however, was preceded by several weeks by an announcement from the UM Board of Curators that, as a result of UM—Columbia Chancellor Alex Cartwright’s imminent departure, President Choi would assume leadership of the Columbia campus and the Curators would be “reassessing” the institutional structure of the University of Missouri System.

As a former executive of the UMKC Faculty Senate and member of the UM Intercampus Faculty Council, my reaction to the announcement about the Curators’ “reassessment” of the structure of the UM System was dread. During my tenure as a member of the IFC, the Board of Curators trotted out numerous arguments for greater “integration” and “collaboration” among the four universities that comprise the UM System; these were buzz-words for a thinly-veiled interest in subordinating the three “regional” institutions—UMSL, UMKC, and Missouri S&T—to the “flagship” campus in Columbia. This attempt was met with significant pushback and resistance on the part of the IFC, with support coming not only from the chancellors of the three campuses at risk, but also from President Choi himself. The Curators ultimately acquiesced to a system structure that retained the integrity and independence of the four universities, while introducing cost-saving measures in the form of shared services and encouraging greater collaboration among the four universities, especially in the form of collaborative teaching, research, and scholarship. Everyone has worked hard to embrace this model of decentralized missions with centralized services. Yet the Curators seem to be using the current crisis as a mechanism to reintroduce the possibility of replacing a workable System model with one that would probably resemble that of The Ohio State University or Indiana University: a dominant research campus with smaller satellite regional campuses, staffed by people whose workloads are higher than at the “flagship” but whose promotion and tenure requirements are more or less identical. While this might be a model that some of the University of Missouri community embrace, it is the worst possible model for vital institutions like UMKC and UMSL. If it is, indeed, the model being contemplated by the Curators, it underscores their shortsightedness, their unwillingness to embrace change, and their commitment to hidebound traditionalism over true innovation and creativity.

I received my advanced degrees at just such a “flagship” campus: Indiana University, Bloomington. IU-B is very much like UM-Columbia: a 150+-year-old institution with a photogenic ivy-covered campus, popular—and expensive—athletic programs, devoted and activist alumnae/i, and a population that is to a very large degree white, privileged, and suburban. The institution where I teach, UMKC, is nothing like the Columbia or Bloomington campuses—and it should not be.

Universities like UMKC are what we need to serve the academic goals of the future. UMKC is an urban-serving university in which the student population is to a large degree non-traditional: older, much less white, often with significant obligations outside their academic programs, and much less affluent than students at traditional institutions. These are the students whose academic aspirations we should be embracing with vigor. These are not students for whom a campus such as Columbia is a doable option. They have families to support, jobs to perform, and prefer an urban environment. Urban-serving universities such as UMKC have to be able to make creative choices that benefit the community and sustain and nurture the relationship between the academic institution and the community it serves. UMKC and its peer group therefore have a very different mission and a very different job to perform than a traditional “flagship” campus. This mission and this job speak to the future in myriad ways: in our commitment to nontraditional and underrepresented minority students, our location in an urban core, our determination to blend traditional academics that teach critical thinking, self-awareness, creativity, and love of wisdom with cutting-edge technological and STEM education and skills-training.

UMKC is also a vitally important component to the success of the major metropolitan area of Kansas City. As the only research-intensive institution in the KC metro, UMKC has made a commitment to serving the cultural, social, intellectual, and technological needs of its urban community. Its ability to be nimble in reshaping programs and taking advantage of opportunities has had a real impact on the wellbeing of the metropolitan area. Our work lifts up our city, especially by honoring and embracing its population through programs that raise the enrollment of under-represented minority students, returning adult learners, and nontraditional students. These are the students who will lead the future of Kansas City. We cannot abandon them in favor of a model that privileges the traditional white middle-class population, a model that subordinates them to a system that is no longer appropriate for the continuing vitality of our state and region.

The Curators are all UM-Columbia graduates and, as such, are loyal to and feel nostalgic about their “home” institution. Their demographic—mostly white, privileged, suburban—also reflects the world that UM-Columbia embodies. This is a problem, because this nostalgia for times past can lead to a lack of empathy for the goals and missions of the urban-serving universities in the UM System—UMKC and UMSL—which then leads to a failure to think, process, and envision a future in which the urban-core institutions are more relevant to the needs of the population than the ivy-covered beauty of the Columbia campus.