By Emily Younker
JOPLIN, Mo. —
After nearly two decades of operation with an international mission, Missouri Southern State University’s state designation could be on the verge of being jettisoned.
While administrators have indicated support for a Senate bill that would remove the statutory language designating the international mission, the proposal has been met with “complete surprise” and opposition by the faculty member who oversees the school’s international programming.
The motion to remove the state designation of MSSU’s international mission was introduced last week as an amendment to a larger education bill in the state Senate. The bill, called Senate Bill 67, was unanimously approved Tuesday by senators and was introduced Wednesday in the House of Representatives.
MSSU President Bruce Speck said late last week that the change would better reflect the overall mission of the university, which he said is not focused solely on an international education.
“We don’t have an international mission,” he said. “We have a comprehensive mission to educate students, and part of that is the international component.”
But Chad Stebbins, director of MSSU’s Institute of International Studies, said he is “absolutely not” in favor of eliminating the university’s mission from state law.
“It provides a certain amount of prestige to have the international mission as part of a state statute,” he said. “People take the international mission much more seriously if there is a state law behind it.”
A state statute currently designates MSSU as “a statewide institution of international or global education.” Lawmakers have proposed repealing that portion of the law, as well as a phrase mandating that MSSU “develop such academic support programs and public service activities it deems necessary and appropriate to establish international or global education as a distinctive theme of its mission.”
In the same statute is the formal redesignation of the school as a university instead of a college, a change that happened in 2003. That would remain unchanged by the bill.
Speck said the mission designation in the state statute should be taken out because it does nothing to distinguish MSSU from other colleges and universities, most of which offer the same international opportunities — foreign language classes, study-abroad programs — that MSSU does. The exception, he said, is MSSU’s themed semesters that provide a variety of programming each fall related to a specific country.
He also said that despite the designation, there is “not a pervasive attitude that MSSU is associated with an international emphasis,” and that many students statewide, as well as many in the local community, don’t automatically link MSSU with an international emphasis.
With or without the state designation of a formal mission, MSSU officials will “remain committed” to providing international and global opportunities to students, Speck said.
Speck said elimination of the state-designated mission would not directly affect state funding to MSSU. He also said he does not intend to use the proposed bill to eliminate the international programming of the university.
“We’d be fools to do that,” he said.
News of the bill has not been well received by some on the campus. Stebbins said his reaction to the posed repeal of the mission was one of “complete surprise.” He said he learned of it last week from a Missouri Southern graduate who is a lobbyist at the state Capitol.
He said he is concerned about what the future of the mission might be if it is not backed by state law.
“Again, there’s a certain protection when your mission is part of state legislation, and then to have it suddenly removed without the campus being aware of it is cause for concern,” he said.
Stebbins did not speculate about the potential impact of removing the mission from the statute. When asked whether it could endanger the Institute of International Studies or international programming at MSSU, or the funding and personnel associated with it, he said: “One never knows what might happen years down the road.”
Email and phone messages left earlier this week for Linda Hand, president of the faculty senate, were not returned.
During an interview late last week, Speck and Pat Lipira, vice president for academic affairs, said the MSSU-specific portion of the bill originated in discussions with Sen. David Pearce, chairman of the Senate Education Committee and one of the senators backing the bill.
They said they had talked to him about “cleaning up the language of the international mission” during his recent visit to the campus, but they stopped short of saying they had requested the repeal of the statutory designation.
“Really, we did not trigger this,” Lipira said.
But in a telephone interview, Pearce, R-Warrensburg, said he had met with MSSU administrators in early December for a campus tour, and that while he was there, they discussed modifying the statute regarding the international mission.
“At their request, they had asked to delete that mission from the statute,” he said.
In a separate telephone interview, Sen. Ron Richard, R-Joplin, said he’d had his own conversations with MSSU administrators who had expressed an interest in changing the statute.
“When the administration calls, you try to do what they ask. That’s how we got the name changed,” Richard said, alluding to the change from college to university. “I don’t know if everybody on campus is good with it; it’s not my job to find that out. We just followed through with the request” for the change regarding the international mission designation.
Pearce, who also is chairman of the Joint Committee on Education, said that committee’s tasks include refining “obsolete” state statutes related to higher education. The committee also has been tasked with creating a funding formula for higher education in the state, and the missions of colleges and universities could be a factor in the piece of the formula that proposes performance-based funding.
Pearce said only a handful of the 13 public colleges and universities in the state, including MSSU, have a mission designated in the statutes. They are Missouri Western State University with a mission of applied learning, Truman State University with a mission of liberal arts and sciences, and Linn State Technical College with a mission of vocational training.
Yet MSSU’s mission is the only one listed for repeal in the bill. The rest of the bill proposes to delete references to statutes that already have been repealed, as well as allowing colleges and universities to establish rules governing traffic on their campuses.
Stebbins questioned why the bill doesn’t also include repealing the state-designated missions of the other schools if that is a priority of the committee.
“If all were being pulled out at the same time, that would be one thing, but just to see Missouri Southern alone coming out was alarming,” he said.
In a follow-up call this week to Pearce’s office, a spokesman for the senator said Missouri Southern is the only school targeted for a repeal of its mission because of Pearce’s discussions with administrators who said they favored it. He also said he didn’t think the presidents of the other schools had approached the senator about repealing their missions.
Lipira said that if the bill is passed by legislators, no impact is expected on student opportunities or curriculum.
“I don’t think anybody’s going to know day to day that anything happened,” she said.
Lipira said a greater impact to international programming could come from the results of “program prioritization,” a current effort to scrutinize more than 130 academic and nonacademic programs on the campus. Administrators have said it’s an attempt to better allocate resources, and the evaluation could end with the possibility of growing and enhancing some programs while reducing or eliminating others.
The internal group that has been reviewing reports from each program is expected to take recommendations to the President’s Council and to the Board of Governors, which will have final authority over implementing any changes to campuswide programming.
“In our mind, that’s going to have more of an impact than changing something in statute,” Lipira said.
According to a 2009 joint report from the faculty senate and the administration, the international mission at MSSU dates to 1989, when then-Gov. John Ashcroft challenged at least one state college or university to adopt such a mission. The following year, MSSU’s Board of Regents, as it was called at the time, approved a change in its mission statement to reflect an international approach to education.
In 1994-95, the state Coordinating Board for Higher Education asked for proposals from colleges and universities to refine their missions, and MSSU’s proposal included an emphasis in international education.
In 1995, then-Gov. Mel Carnahan signed into law the legislation designating the international mission. Former MSSU President Julio Leon said at the time that the objectives were to provide study-abroad opportunities to students and to prepare them for global careers, according to Globe reports.
The Institute of International Studies was soon established on campus, and over the next four years, a total of $2.4 million was given to the university by the state for “mission enhancement.”
MSSU’s themed semesters began in the 1997-98 academic year, as did the annual Gockel International Symposium. The university also added an international studies major and expanded offerings of foreign languages and study-abroad programs.
The 2009 report called the international mission “among the most successful elements of what we do at MSSU.” The report called for continued funding for its support, further development of the themed semesters and international travel opportunities, and a continued focus on international student admissions.
Funding of the international mission has fluctuated over the years. According to the report, it represented 3.7 percent of the university’s total budget in 2000, but a critical 2001 state audit of the university noted “weak travel policies” and more than half a million dollars spent on international travel, as well as the use of public funds for the private Missouri Southern International Piano Competition.
By 2009, funding of the international mission represented about 1.1 percent of the total budget, according to the MSSU report. It was around that time, during the early part of Speck’s tenure at MSSU, that the Institute of International Studies received about a 40 percent budget cut, drawing protests from some students and faculty members.
ACCORDING TO ITS WEBSITE, the mission of Missouri Southern State University is to be a “state-supported, comprehensive university offering programs leading to undergraduate and graduate degrees. Central to our mission is a strong commitment to international education, liberal arts, professional and pre-professional programs and the complementary relationship that must exist among them to prepare individuals for success in careers and lifelong learning.”