A year after UM funding cuts, legislators reflect, talk future
COLUMBIA - Protests rocked MU's campus in 2015, resulting in unprecedented funding cuts to the UM system in 2016. One year after protests garnered national and statewide criticism, one local lawmaker said he wants better results for the university in 2017.
"I'm going to continue to be optimistic that we can move past it," said newly-elected State Senator Caleb Rowden, who was a state representative in fall 2015. "But, if we don't, we have to be ready to fight again."
But how did we get to this point? The frustration and anger toward the university grew as Concerned Student 1950 stole the national spotlight last fall. After many voiced their disapproval, lawmakers remembered when it counted, voting to cut funding for the UM system to the tune of $3.8 million.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle voted in favor of legislation that could have done even more damage. Rowden said he recalls a conversation he had with former UM President Tim Wolfe, where he realized just how damning last fall was to the university's relationship with lawmakers.
"I never remember, and I had never spoken to anybody who remembered a time where beating up on the University of Missouri was a politically expedient thing to do. And I think that changed last year," Rowden said.
Representative Steve Cookson, (R-Popular Bluff), said the university put lawmakers outside of Columbia in a tough spot.
"When we would come back home to our different areas, the questions we were being asked were, 'What kind of craziness is going on up there? And, what are their demands? And they're demanding things?'" Cookson said.
Cookson insisted race did not play a role in the funding cuts, despite the fact many of the lawmakers who voted in favor of the cuts hail from rural areas of the state.
"Everyone has to act in an appropriate way, regardless of what your race is," Cookson said.
Rowden said he does not believe the personal opinions held by Missouri lawmakers should ever dictate how much money the state's flagship university receives.
"It's not the job of the Missouri legislature to run the University of Missouri. It is our job, as the biggest benefactor who writes a $450 million check to the university every year, to make sure that money is being used well," Rowden said.
Representative Kathie Conway (R-St. Charles), who holds a seat on Missouri's select budget committee, also voted for the UM funding cuts. She said she's still unsure about the direction of the UM system as a whole.
"I’m not sure exactly what the university has done to correct the problem," Conway said in a statement. "My opinion is it starts at the top with the curators, and I feel they have been ineffective in leadership."
Despite being described as a champion of the university last fall, Rowden concedes there were some major issues.
"You don't get to a position where you have a hunger strike going on in the middle of your campus, and your football team is striking, your grad students are upset for a different issue, you don't get to that place without some things being done the wrong way," Rowden said.
Cookson said while he is optimistic about recent changes to the UM system, he and his colleagues need to see more before they will be convinced the university is headed in the right direction.
"We're optimistic, but, we're also cautious, because in the last year, it seems like, they're making the news a lot, and not always in a positive way," Cookson said.
Still, Rowden characterized last year's funding cuts as an unfair, bipartisan attack on one of the state's most valuable assets.
"There were a few screaming matches last year," Rowden said. "It wasn't unclear what the motivation was. It was a pretty transparent kick in the teeth to the university at a time when that was the last thing they needed."
Rowden said he believes many of the people who came out so passionately against the university had been waiting for years, if not longer, for an opportunity to hurt MU.
"It's no secret that there are folks from certain pockets of the state that just don't like the university. And they would love to see it brought down to a level of some of the other schools in the state," Rowden said.
He said the mood is different heading into this years session, pointing to time as the key healing factor.
"I don't think that this year there is going to be quite the desire for beating up on the university to be a top priority, I just don't see that happening. I think we're far enough removed from some of those issues, and enough changes have been made."