Commenting on the dispute between Southeast Missouri State University and Three Rivers Community College, the Southeast Missourian ended a March 24 editorial: "Now students have been caught in the middle." That's an accurate conclusion, but let's examine the reasons behind it.
TRCC has provided freshman and sophomore level courses in the Malden area since 1981 and in Sikeston and Kennett since about 1995. Under the cooperative agreement that established the Higher Education Centers in Malden (1988) and Kennett (2000), TRCC has provided all the lower division courses.
When the Sikeston center opened in 1998, Southeast officials insisted on teaching 50 percent of the freshman and sophomore classes. Southeast always has taught all the junior and senior level courses at the centers.
However, at 10:15 a.m. on Friday, February 25, Southeast President Ken Dobbins sent a fax to TRCC ordering the community college to vacate the higher education centers at Sikeston, Malden and Kennett effective May 14. He said, in part: "The premises are to be vacated . . . All books, supplies, furniture, equipment or other personal property . . . is to be removed on or before the termination date."
Also on February 25, the day the fax arrived, the following occurred simultaneously:
* Dobbins held press conferences announcing the takeover.
* Dobbins sent all students at the centers a letter announcing "a significant improvement in higher education access and opportunity."
* Southeast's directors at each center sent all students a letter "to encourage your early registration of classes for summer and/or fall. Southeast will provide all academic coursework at the centers. The rate (of tuition) will be $110 per credit hour. Summer registration is now in progress and fall priority registration will begin February 28."
* Southeast began contacting TRCC adjunct instructors and offering them more money to teach TRCC classes for Southeast in the summer and fall.
For decades, TRCC has provided the most affordable and accessible college courses in the region. In only the past five years, students at the centers would have had to spend an additional $4.7 million in tuition if they had taken their freshman and sophomore courses through Southeast.
TRCC has been a vital part of the success of all three Higher Education Centers, which saw a total student increase from 802 to more than 2,200 in the past 10 years. The centers, hailed as models of cooperation in higher education, have succeeded because TRCC recruited and nurtured needy students and secured competent faculty to teach them. Many of these
students could not otherwise have gone to college because they could neither afford Southeast's tuition nor meet the university's admission standards. TRCC's open admission policy and effective offerings of developmental/remedial courses have been key elements in starting thousands of students on the road toward a better education and more secure future.
As of a year ago, 63 percent of TRCC's students were considered "low income." (The Missouri average is only 11.7 percent.) In the 2000 federal census, in the college's taxing district in Butler, Wayne, Carter and Ripley counties, 29.9 percent of all people under age 18 were living in poverty. (The
state average was 15.3 percent.) Nearly 65 percent of those over age 25 had not graduated from high school. (The Missouri and U.S. average was just under 19 percent.) Those demographics are similar over much of TRCC's larger 15-county, state-mandated Service Area. There lies the real story about the need for affordable and accessible higher education in Southeast Missouri.
TRCC currently has 826 students at the centers, 28 percent of its enrollment. The secretly planned and unexpected action by Southeast to kick TRCC out and commandeer more than a fourth of its students threatens the future of the college. Much more important is the effect on the students themselves.
Even though Dobbins has temporarily lowered Southeast's tuition at the centers to $110 per credit hour for the coming Summer, Fall and Spring '06 semesters, it would seem to be nothing more than a thinly disguised ploy to lure away TRCC students. And how can that be fair to students on the Cape Girardeau campus who currently have to pay $160.50 per credit hour?
Actually, Dobbins wants to grab the tuition revenue from the freshman and sophomore courses currently being taught by TRCC and assume complete power and control over the centers for the future. He appears to be desperate to find money to finance Southeast's operations in Cape Girardeau, including the proposed River Campus project for which he has admitted selling $17 million worth of bonds backed only by phantom appropriations discussed in the halls of the Missouri General Assembly several years ago during the Carnahan administration but never authorized.
And there's one more pertinent issue. Scores of students from Cape Girardeau County apparently are driving to Sikeston and to Illinois (at $2-
per-gallon-plus gasoline prices) to obtain affordable community college classes. Except for some vocational courses, TRCC is prohibited from offering classes in Cape Girardeau County only because of a Coordinating Board for Higher Education regulation promoted a year or so ago by Dobbins. Strangely enough, at Springfield, home of the soon-to-be Missouri State University (now Southwest Missouri State), Ozarks Technical (community) College is free to offer all the classes it wishes to its nearly 9,000 students. Why should Southeast have an elitist monopoly on higher education in Cape Girardeau?
President Dobbins claims that Southeast is "losing" $800,000 annually at the centers. He also claims that TRCC hasn't paid its share of expenses at the centers. Under the three-year rental agreement Dobbins terminated, TRCC would have paid Southeast about $150,000 annually. The community college also has spent about $620,000 in technology upgrades over the past five years. Dobbins used an honest disagreement (involving about $10,000) over calculation of rental fees paid by TRCC for the last Fall Semester as a "reason" to terminate both the rental agreement and the cooperative consortium agreement at the centers.
At TRCC's request, Commissioner of Higher Education Greg Fitch on March 7 brought together Dobbins and TRCC's president, Dr. John Cooper, to try to work out an agreement whereby TRCC could return to the centers. In spite of the four-hour meeting and repeated requests to stop registering students until the dispute could be resolved, Dobbins insisted on more discussions about relatively minor student affairs issues. And Southeast was working furiously every day that passed to register TRCC's students.
In self-defense, TRCC began organizing summer classes at alternate sites across Southeast Missouri. The tuition will be $89 plus a $5 technology fee per credit hour. Additionally, nine days after the aborted attempt at mediation, attorneys for the TRCC Board of Trustees filed a nine-count civil lawsuit against Southeast.
I agree with the Southeast Missourian editorial. The students are "caught in the middle." But what Southeast has done has nothing to do with teaching or learning. It has all to do with finding money to pay for poor management practices at Southeast's main campus.
John R. Stanard
Chairman, Board of Trustees
Three Rivers Community College