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Editorial: MU uproar spotlights big education challenges

Apr. 20, 2013 @ 10:05 PM

The leadership of Marshall University Thursday wisely took a big step back from a controversial budgeting change that sparked protests from both faculty members and students last week.

Members of the Board of Governors voted to table the idea of centralizing departmental spending, and more importantly, pledged to involve a broad-based group of faculty, staff and students in the evaluation of such a change.

Taking a collective "deep breath" is a good move because Marshall faces a very difficult financial future, including a $5 million reduction in state appropriations in the upcoming budget year. As with many public universities across the country, tighter budgets will mean big changes, and campuswide cooperation will be critical.

The controversy began on April 9 when President Stephen Kopp alerted faculty and staff by e-mail that in response to the projected cuts the university had pulled most of the funds from departmental accounts, apparently to see how much fee revenue was there and how it was being spent. Under Marshall's current budgeting system, the range of course and program fees paid by students go into separate accounts managed by the university's schools and departments.

Kopp maintains that a centralized budgeting structure could help the university make the most of the money it has, perhaps even providing flexibility to increase salaries, which are low compared with other schools.

But understandably, the surprise action offended and infuriated both faculty and students. Kopp made a big mistake in not involving the campus in the decision to make such a fundamental change, and the manner in which it was done was interpreted as showing a lack of trust in his own people.

The president has apologized for his approach, but clearly more needs to be done. The trust issue predates Kopp, the chairman of the History Department Dan Holbrook told the board Thursday, and "very little has been done to change the culture" in recent years. Perhaps, as Board Chairman Dr. Joe Touma suggested, this painful episode can spark a new era of "openness and cooperation."

That's vital because the truth is Marshall is going to need everyone working together in coming years.

The university has seen its state support steadily decline. With huge state budget challenges ahead, there is no indication that situation will improve. The board and Kopp agree that students cannot endure the recent pace of tuition and fee increases. Faculty and staff need reasonable compensation and the tools to provide a top-flight education.

Where will the money come from?

Clearly, the university cannot conduct business as usual. If there is a more effective way to manage the more than $10 million found in those departmental accounts this month, that needs to be explored.

Meanwhile, lawmakers and the public need to begin a realistic discussion about the future of public higher education.

Universities can work to trim administrative and operational spending, and emerging technology and online courses can help reduce costs. But the decline in public investment is still likely to mean shifting more of the cost of higher education to families and students.

For states such as West Virginia, with lower incomes and a great need to improve education levels, that is going to be a real problem.

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