Mizzou's Chickens Come Home to Roost

Dion J. Pierre

The University of Missouri announced plans to lay off roughly one hundred staff members as part of a plan to cope with projected revenue shortfalls. For two consecutive years, Mizzou has faced declining freshman enrollment. Per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

"Amid budget cuts and an anticipated 7.4 percent drop in enrollment, leaders at the University of Missouri-Columbia are expecting to trim about 400 positions.

Most of the jobs would be cut through attrition, with fewer than 100 layoffs projected. Interim Mizzou chancellor Garnett Stokes announced the budget details at a campus forum Monday…

The loss of students would result in about $16.6 million less in revenue. Leaders hope to make up about $7 million of that through a 2.1 percent increase in tuition."

Mizzou’s purge won’t be exclusive to faculty and staff. Just last month, the school closed three more residence halls, adding up to a total of seven halls shuttered in the last year alone. And despite the attempt of some school officials to pin the school’s fiscal woes on a “declining number of high school graduates across the region,” they ultimately admitted to “ongoing public perception concerns.”

Perhaps “fixed negative perception” more accurately describes the problem.

It isn’t hard to see what’s endangering the Mizzou Tigers. Mizzou’s Melissa Click became the face of campus illiberalism a year and a half ago when she called for “some muscle” to oust a student journalist from a public protest. Meanwhile, System President Tim Wolfe and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin typified the craven administrators who caved to student protests and failed to preserve order. 

Such events have made it harder to ignore the shabby curriculum and racialized climate that defines the modern campus. Declining freshman enrollment at Mizzou is, at the least, an indication that parents are thinking twice before sending checks to institutions where students are doing everything but learning –or where their safety is at risk.

Unfortunately, elite schools with similar problems are immune to some of the pressures Mizzou faces. Esteemed institutions such as Yale, where a mob of students hounded Nicholas and Erika Christakis off-campus because they questioned a Halloween costume guide, will continue to see the money roll in. Parents will take pride in bragging about their kids’ entry into the “club” and there are few unemployed Harvard graduates.

Still, the higher-education establishment at large should be on notice. A recent Pew study found that affordable, non-traditional-four-year schools have attracted a growing number of Americans. This means that colleges that hope to avoid Mizzou’s fate should think of ways to increase their value. Parents are increasingly skeptical of the higher ed establishment, and yet dependent on it for their children’s job prospects. They are looking for better alternatives. 

And as our own Peter Wood recently wrote, meaningful reform requires rethinking our approach to and expectations of higher education. This is no easy task. Fixing the financial model, restoring liberal education, restructuring student borrowing, and dismantling the diversitocracy are just some of the solutions that policymakers should pursue.

The higher ed establishment will fight tooth-and-nail any proposal that undermines their status, but this backlash could favor reformers. A public debate about the sclerotic state of our universities will reveal the complacency of the establishment, for whom reform would mean fewer diversity dollars and less schmoozing with rich, progressive donors. That debate, however, is beginning to take shape, and what's happening at Mizzou is likely to spread. 

Image: Jesse Hall, University of Missouri, Columbia by Adam Procter // CC BY 2.0

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