State Senate Appropriations Chairman Kurt Schaefer thinks Missouri needs a stronger, more focused look at what's happening in higher education.
"We've got 13 four-year public campuses," he explained last Tuesday, during a hearing involving the heads of the 10 state-owned universities that operate those 13 campuses. "We've got a lot of duplication - and not just duplication of programs - but, also, a lot of duplication on back office costs, procurement costs and other things that we're spending money on.
"Those dollars aren't going into the classroom, to professors (and) they're not going to directly benefit students."
Earlier that day, Schaefer, R-Columbia, asked Higher Education Commissioner David Russell why the state's Coordinating Board for Higher Education (CBHE) wasn't doing more to control and manage those costs.
Schaefer later told reporters: "Their purpose is to coordinate all aspects of higher education delivery through the institutions in the state of Missouri."
But, Russell told Schaefer, the board - and the state's Higher Education department it supervises - doesn't have that power.
Russell, who has been the department's chief administrator since June 2010, and his staff point to the state law that says they "establish guidelines for appropriation requests" by the separate universities - but that the Legislature appropriates money to each school for its control, not the department's or the board's management.
They also noted the law requires the CBHE to approve new programs or classes, but it cannot require the schools to close existing programs.
Russell told the News Tribune Friday: "I'm still convinced, at this stage, that Missouri - by virtue of its history and its orientation around very distinct regions and needs - is best-served by a coordinating form of governance."
When asked last week about the lawmakers' higher education discussions, Gov. Jay Nixon told reporters, editors and managers attending the Associated Press/Missouri Press Association's Day at the Capitol event: "We've downsized by over 115 degree programs - voluntarily ending degree programs that were not performing as well as others.
"We have worked with all organizations to consolidate their ability for entry-level courses, so we can have a course redesign in those areas that makes sense."
And that happened by officials working together, the governor said.
When Russell earned his doctorate in educational leadership and policy analysis, his dissertation included a study of higher education's history in the state.
His study found, in 1893, representatives of seven Missouri public higher education institutions met in Sedalia and approved creating a "Missouri College Union" to raise educational standards.
Sixty-four years later, then-Gov. James T. Blair appointed a statewide "Committee on Education Beyond the High School," to determine the state's future higher education needs because of the post-World War II explosion in college enrollments.
Two years later, in 1959, Blair created the Governor's Council on Higher Education as a voluntary group representing the colleges.
Three years after that, the council's study group recommended that:
• New universities be established in St. Louis and Kansas City, as part of the University of Missouri.
• The five regional schools (Kirksville, Cape Girardeau, Springfield, Warrensburg and Maryville) be placed under the control of one nine-member governing board rather than being controlled by separate boards.
• The Legislature create a statewide Higher Education Council with power to set statewide priorities, coordinate the five schools' budgets, planning and missions and implement federal education programs.
The state followed only the recommendation to add University of Missouri campuses in Kansas City and St. Louis.
Ten years later, voters in 1972 approved a constitutional amendment reorganizing state government, including creating the CBHE and its separate Higher Education department - but voters didn't give the department full control over the state-owned schools.
Before that reorganization, Missouri had only one Education department.
And Arthur Mallory was its commissioner from 1971-87 - including the time of the reorganization changes.
"There was no Coordinating Board when I first became the Commissioner of Education," Mallory recalled last week, "and we had responsibilities for all of the state-supported two-year colleges.
"We did not have the four-year colleges - they were governed by their own boards."
Paul Wagner, a former Higher Education department administrator, now directs the state's Council on Public Higher Education - the organization representing the state's 10 public, four-year universities and the 13 campuses.
"I think the Coordinating Board's job is to be a somewhat impartial player, to look at statewide issues that affect everyone in higher education," he explained in a Friday afternoon interview. "In Missouri, we have a very decentralized higher education system - it is consistent with Missouri's culture as a local-control type of state.
"People in Missouri like to have local control. When people are appointed to a university governing board, they're supposed to be looking out for that school's interests."
Russell said that system works well for Missouri's universities.
Each institution's governing board - such as Lincoln University's or the University of Missouri's curators - "are having to review all of that fiscal information and they know what the state of the institution is," Russell explained. "They're going to have a pretty good feel for the expenses that the institution is incurring.
"And how are they going to balance the books and act in a responsible fiscal manner?"
State law limits the Higher Education department's staff to no more than 25 employees (not counting the financial aid section). In the 2012-13 business year, it had half that number. It had the equivalent of just under 17 full-time employees in the current budget, and proposes to add one more next year.
Russell noted that's not enough to monitor the complicated budgets and operations of 10 schools and 13 campuses.
"How are we going to sit up here and analyze the total situation that (each) institutions faces - and make wise decisions?" he asked. "We can do it to an extent. But I think our judgment could always be held to question."
Russell, Wagner and Schaefer all noted Missouri higher education represents and reflects the state's diverse populations.
Because of that, Schaefer said, lawmakers shouldn't be treating all schools the same.
"I think at this point that's inappropriate, when you see such a huge disparity of success rates in how these institutions are doing and what they offer," he told reporters.
Schaefer assured the presidents he's not looking to close any schools - but mentioned "consolidation" several times.
Russell and Wagner said the conversation is important.
Wagner said: "The questions that Sen. Schaefer and others are raising are perfectly legitimate.
"I think it's healthy to raise these fundamental questions every once in awhile."