The University of Missouri System has launched a new "caucus" to help lawmakers understand the university's importance to the state.
"We have a good story to tell," state Sen. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, told a Thursday morning news conference, "and we are getting better every day at telling it.
"So, I think it is important for us — as a caucus now and as people who really value and believe in the power of the University of Missouri — to stand up and talk about it."
UM System President Mun Choi told reporters the new caucus will promote the university system — but not to the detriment of the nine other state-supported universities — Lincoln University, the University of Central Missouri (Warrensburg), Missouri State University (Springfield), Truman (Kirksville), Northwest (Maryville), Southeast (Cape Girardeau), Harris-Stowe (St. Louis), Missouri Western (St. Joseph) and Missouri Southern (Joplin).
"I think it's very important that all of us who work in public higher education to lift all boats — because every student who attends a public two-year or four-year university in this state deserves support," he explained. "We are not going to be parochial in our approach."
Rep. Greg Razer, D-Kansas City, is a University of Missouri-Columbia graduate, and his House district borders — but doesn't include — the UM-Kansas City campus.
"I believe very much in the mission of our university system, and want to see it succeed," Razer said, noting he visited all four UM campuses this last summer.
He pointed to some highlights of the work being done on each campus, and noted state funding is only around a quarter of the funds each campus needs to operate — 27 percent at UM-St. Louis, 24 percent at the Missouri University of Science and Technology (Rolla), 23 percent at UMKC and only 20-percent at the university's flagship campus in Columbia.
"It is time that we fund our universities at a rate that they deserve," Razer said, "and I look forward to spending my time in the General Assembly working toward that goal."
Missouri's Constitution says: "The general assembly shall adequately maintain the state university and such other educational institutions as it may deem necessary."
Choi said the UM System's leadership is focused on improvement following the controversies and student protests on the Columbia campus in November 2015.
"Beginning two years ago," he said, "we worked on the strategic plan that focused on excellence in student success, excellence in research and excellence in engagement.
"Also in the last two years, we have cut and re-allocated $180 million, so that we can fund those programs that are critical for us."
Just in the first five months of the current business year, that began last July 1, he said, "We were able to raise $80 million for scholarships, primarily for need-based students and our outstanding students in Missouri, so that they don't go outside of our state — so, we are reversing the 'brain-drain.'"
The University of Missouri is included in the state's Constitution, with a provision that "the government of the state university shall be vested in a board of curators consisting of nine members appointed by the governor, by and with the advice and consent of the senate."
Although not named in the Constitution, Lincoln University also has a statewide mission, and a federal land grant mission as designated by an 1890 federal law (while UM-Columbia is a federal land grant university under an 1862 law).
Since at least 1929, state law has said: "The board of curators of the Lincoln University shall organize after the manner of the board of curators of the state University of Missouri; and it is further provided, that the powers, authority, responsibilities, privileges, immunities, liabilities and compensation of the board of curators of the Lincoln University shall be the same as those prescribed by statute for the board of curators of the state University of Missouri, except as stated in this chapter," which codifies LU's operations.
Choi said the UM caucus will promote higher education in general.
"It's very important," he said. "We can't grow at the expense of other four-years. We've got to grow together and, at the same time, we have to partner with MCCA, the two-year community colleges.
"Higher Education is a statewide mission for all of us."
He also said: "For us, when we talk about student success, we're talking about providing more scholarship opportunities. We want that to happen at Lincoln University (and) Harris-Stowe University.
"In fact, right now, the University of Missouri System is working closely — closely — with Lincoln University to expand and grow their extension programs and also to have programs in which our students can work together on innovative projects."
Still, he said, better legislative support for the UM System is important, because "We can be the engine for economic development. We can be the engine for research that cures cancer.
"We can be an institution that enlivens our lives through music, art and the humanities."
Rowden said the UM System is "an integral part of the future of the state of Missouri," and it's important "to make sure that this university and this system is functioning at a high level (and) is accountable for the things that we are asking of them.
"And that, when they are accountable, we as legislators are thoughtful and intellectual and courageous enough to provide the critical investments that are needed, not only for core funding, but for new initiatives."
Rowden added: "I am constantly surprised at the numbers that are coming out of our institutions, as far as students that are served, areas that they are going into, research that is being done, what that research means as far as an economic output in our state.
"That's the story that needs to be told (and) is being told with our new leadership."