Missouri: Budget had role in SEC switch

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A decade of declining state funding for the University of Missouri enhanced the appeal of switching conference alignments from the Big 12 to the more financially stable and lucrative Southeastern Conference, the university's chancellor said Monday.

The University of Missouri-Columbia plans to join the SEC in July under an arrangement announced with much fanfare last month by university and conference officials. The golden financial opportunities associated with the SEC's powerful football programs were a much-publicized part of the deal. Chancellor Brady Deaton acknowledged Monday that repeated state funding cuts to the university also played a role his decision to make the switch.

"Had state funding stayed up and we were in real solid shape financially, there would still be the issues that we were dealing with trying to gain some sense of stability and surety with the Big 12. But the fact that there was pressure financially there, certainly accentuated our attention to that set of issues," Deaton said while answering questions at the annual Missouri-Kansas Associated Press Publishers and Editors Meeting in Kansas City.

Deaton added: "Looking at more stable and perhaps lucrative long-term conference alignment, the attractiveness was enhanced by the financial uncertainty that we were facing."

State funding for Missouri's higher education institutions has failed to keep pace with inflation. In fact, it remains below the levels that colleges and universities were budgeted to receive in 2001, before the first round of many state cuts -- something noted by Deaton during his presentation to the media Monday. This year, the Missouri Department of Higher Education is budgeted to receive $834 million from state general revenues, much of which goes to colleges and universities. In the 2001 budget, that figure was $960 million, according to figures provided by the state Senate Appropriations Committee.

The University of Missouri Board of Curators, which oversees a four-campus system that includes the flagship Columbia site, has pushed for the athletic department to become self-sufficient financially, Deaton said. Given the state funding cuts, the university "simply cannot ask our students and taxpayers to provide the kind of funding needed by a major athletic program," Deaton said.

Missouri ranks 11th among the 14 current and future SEC schools in overall athletics revenue, bringing in $59 million in the 2010-11 academic year. Missouri still has to negotiate its exit fees for leaving the Big 12, which could place a multimillion dollar hit on the university. But Deaton said Monday that the university expects a long-term financial advantage by switching to the SEC, gaining between $2 million to $4 million annually in television revenues, "with some possibility that it could be even greater than that."

Missouri's college and university leaders struck a deal with Gov. Jay Nixon's administration in each of the two previous budget years to freeze tuition in exchange for flat or minimized state funding cuts, though no such agreement was made this year. Deaton said he is not aware of any such discussions for the upcoming year. A Nixon spokesman said he also was unaware of any such possibility.

Deaton said the state's financial pressures have increased the importance of private fundraising for the university. Ideally, he said, donations would help to "create a margin of excellence" for the university provide scholarships and keep up with other top-ranked research institutions around the nation, he said.

But "we're worried, clearly, that if the funding picture doesn't change at the state and national level, that it's going to take all that private fundraising effort just to sort of stay abreast of the very significant needs educationally that are there," Deaton said.