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Recent Missouri Editorials

November 27, 2018

The Joplin Globe, Nov. 25

Higher education needs to be higher priority

A recent assessment of higher education needs in Missouri paints a gloomy picture. The state’s public colleges and universities face $1.4 billion in deferred maintenance, and it’s getting worse.

The state has nearly 2,500 buildings on its campuses and countless miles or road and acres of parking lots, all needing attention, some desperately.

Missouri Southern State University has more than $45 million in building and infrastructure needs, including more than $23.8 million in deferred maintenance; Crowder College has more than $10 million in needs.

But the breakdown that is our chief concern is occurring not on the campuses but in Jefferson City. For too many years now, higher education has been the go-to remedy when there are tight budgets, the place to save more money when revenue projections fall short. According to the report, in 2017 and 2018, core appropriations to colleges and universities were reduced by a total of $130 million over those two years, and additional higher education expenditure restrictions in that time totaled another $91 million, for a total of $221 million.

Unless we change that course, the result will be the kind of drama playing out at MSSU’s Taylor Performing Arts Center. Built nearly 50 years ago, it has not had a major repair or renovation since. A recent inspection of the stage and its rigging system — ropes, pulleys and other devices that enable crews to move curtains, equipment, lights and scenery — resulted in it being declared a safety hazard. Right now, Taylor cannot be used for certain performances or events.

The Coordinating Board for Higher Education has a number of recommendations. Among them:

. Increase appropriations for all institutions to address major deferred maintenance. Because deferred maintenance needs in Missouri are so great, the board will request funds for maintenance and repair needs from the state in fiscal year 2020 rather than endorse requests for new construction.

. Create a new appropriation specifically for CBHE-designated critical capital improvements.

Budgets will always be tight, needs will always be greater than revenue, but to our way of thinking, this is less about budgets than about priorities, and higher education needs to be a top state priority. Education, at both the lower and higher levels, is the best investment a state can make.

We urge lawmakers to take this report and its recommendations seriously, and to remember the counsel of Rob Yust, vice president for business affairs at MSSU: “Our first thing to think about is what is in the best interest of students. In the long term, if we don’t address stuff like this, we’ll have to look at alternative methods of educating and housing our students, or they will go to another state.”

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The Kansas City Star, Nov. 25

Can the new chancellor help transform UMKC into a first-tier university?

The controversy surrounding a University of Missouri-Kansas City professor who allegedly abused his students is shocking — students come to UMKC to learn, not to cut a professor’s grass or wait tables at a garden party.

For a university trying to make significant improvements, this scandal is also a setback — and an unneeded distraction that will divert attention and resources from ambitious plans for the future.

Everyone in the region has a stake in a better UMKC. Kansas City urgently needs a first-tier urban university. And it still lacks one.

“Kansas City is almost alone among important American cities in not having in its midst a world-class comprehensive research university,” an outside study committee wrote eight years ago.

UMKC has made enormous strides since that report and is a better institution now than it was a decade ago. But efforts to elevate the university to an internationally-known research school must be renewed and redoubled.

To his credit, Chancellor Mauli Agrawal, who took the helm in June, told us he’s pursuing an “aggressive strategy” to make UMKC a first-tier university during the next decade. He wants to increase undergraduate enrollment by 50 percent over that period, through enhanced curricula, off-campus study options and improved student housing.

“Enrollment is too low,” Agrawal said.

He’s correct. Undergraduate enrollment has actually slipped at UMKC, from 8,585 students in 2014 to 7,995 in 2018. Graduate enrollment is down during the same period.

Scandals at the pharmacy and business schools are blemishes on the university’s reputation. There are worries about substandard student housing at UMKC, a situation Agrawal wants to address. Neighbors are still leery of major expansion plans. Parking and tuition costs are perennial concerns.

No chancellor can overcome those hurdles on his or her own. If UMKC is to become a first-tier American university, it will need serious, sustained support from the state legislature, the governor, the University of Missouri board of curators and the local community, including philanthropists and politicians.

In this context, finalizing plans to build a new on- or near-campus performing arts conservatory is an important first step. The current facility is still substandard and potentially dangerous, the student newspaper reports.

But that’s only a start. State officials must stop cutting the budget for higher education when tax revenues drop. UMKC will only become a first-class university if the state fully commits to making it one.

Kansas City must play a role, too. Mayoral candidates should outline their plans for improving UMKC, including the relationship between the university and area high schools. Private interests should renew their promises of financial support.

And the curators could help by ending their whisper campaign against UMKC’s athletics program. Agrawal said a new athletics director is taking a close look at costs but that the school remains committed to a presence in Division I NCAA sports.

Reviewing the cost of sports is important for UMKC and for every university. But enrollment will never grow if the campus shuts down after 5 p.m. UMKC should be able to teach students and provide them an attractive on-campus experience at the same time.

Agrawal is right when he says fixing UMKC is about the future, not the past. He discussed proposals to expand online learning opportunities for students and to focus on training the next generation of data scientists during the next decade.

Both are promising ideas. Businesses leaders in and around Kansas City have been vocal about the urgent need in this area for more highly-trained students who are prepared for the 21st-century workplace. UMKC can be — must be — the place many of those workers are found.

It’s a critical time for Kansas City’s public university, which many still consider a “commuter school.” The shelf is crowded with five- and 10-year improvement plans for UMKC that promised growth but didn’t deliver. That must change, and Agrawal must lead the way.

A great city must include a great university, he told us. We have long agreed. It’s now his job, and all of ours, to make it happen.

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The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Nov. 25

Editorial: Fighting the myths behind the no-vaccination movement

According to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of children without vaccines is on the rise, and has been since at least 2001. The report finds that 1.3 percent of children born in 2015 were completely unvaccinated, compared to 0.9 percent of children born in 2011 and 0.3 percent of children born in 2001. How worried should we be?

Not that worried, at least not yet. Vaccinations protect not just the children who receive the shots, but everyone else as well. When enough of a given community gets vaccinated, diseases can’t spread because there aren’t enough unvaccinated people to catch the disease, creating what’s often called “herd immunity.”

Herd immunity is an important function of vaccinations. Some people cannot safely be vaccinated because of allergies or a weak immune system. These people have no choice but to rely on herd immunity. The herd immunity threshold depends on the disease, but hyper contagious diseases like measles require 90 percent to 95 percent vaccination levels for herd immunity to be effective.

As long as the number of children without vaccinations stays below 5 percent, you shouldn’t lose sleep worrying about a measles epidemic. Still, the trend of decreasing percentages of vaccinated children is concerning. Although herd immunity remains strong enough to protect against large-scale outbreak, cases of pertussis and measles are on the rise because of vaccine opt-outs.

People opt out of vaccinations for various reasons. Some, like President Donald Trump, fear vaccines cause autism (they don’t, as now-Health and Human Services Secretary Ben Carson tried to explain to Trump during a 2016 campaign debate). Others worry about various ingredients found in some vaccines, like aluminum (none of these are dangerous). Another group protests on religious grounds.

It’s tempting to say government shouldn’t force people to get vaccines, and that people deserve the freedom to make their own choices about vaccines. But those who forgo vaccinations aren’t just making choices for themselves; they’re making choices for the vulnerable populations that rely on herd immunity.

Moreover, adults aren’t even opting themselves out, they’re opting their children out, which needlessly subjects those children to dangerous diseases like measles and polio.

This country doesn’t allow conscientious objectors to, say, ignore speeding laws. The rights of others to exist in a safe environment supersede those of the objectors. When one person’s freedom interferes with another’s safety, governments can and should intervene. A public school, for example, has every right to require all students to receive the recommended vaccines before enrolling. Such mandatory vaccine policies can go a long way toward protecting the rest of the population from the rise in anti-vaccine attitudes currently driving down vaccination numbers.

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