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Missouri Western (copy)

The Missouri Western State University campus.

With both prestige and 1,500 jobs on the line, the behind-the-scenes maneuvering to land the new U.S. Space Command headquarters must have been intense.

Last week, the Trump Administration announced that headquarters would be located not in Colorado Springs, not in Florida, not at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, but in Huntsville, Alabama.

Critics will see this as Trump rewarding red state allies. There may be some of that, but this overly simplistic view ignores that political pull might get you over the top, but won’t get you in the room.

In the 1960s, the Saturn V rocket was developed and built in Huntsville, which today calls itself the Rocket City. It’s hard to envision how a mid-sized city in northern Alabama could attract this kind of development without sustained investment in higher education.

The University of Alabama Huntsville started as an extension center in 1950 and became part of the University of Alabama system in 1969, the same year that Missouri Western became a four-year intitution.

Missouri Western has learned that it’s one thing to call yourself a university. It’s another thing to get funded like one.

Since 2010, the state appropriation for UAH has increased 37%, including a 5.5% annual increase, to $55 million, in fiscal year 2020. By contrast, Missouri Western’s state appropriation increased roughly 8% from 2005, growth that lags behind inflation in that same time period. Other public universities in Missouri could sing a similar song.

We are not suggesting that more money would have brought the Space Command to Missouri. Far from it. But in Missouri, state lawmakers need to understand that investment in higher education doesn’t always pay an immediate dividend, which is why it’s a convenient budget target. Sustained support, over time, does cultivate an educated, entrepreneurial and high-tech workforce that’s necessary to land big projects like the Space Command or smaller start-ups, like the Huntsville company that developed the weather app that this news organization uses.

Missouri seems to have lost sight of this. It’s a missed opportunity that can’t be attributed to one political figure or party. Nor can one person fix it, but part of the task now falls to a state representative from St. Joseph.

Brenda Shields, a Republican, was named chair of the House Higher Education Committee. She has spoken of the need to look for efficiencies and reforms, but also to stop balancing the budget on the backs of state universities.

Much will be written about the governor and the pandemic during this legislative session, but it’s Shields and this particular committee that will have much to say about the future our state takes.

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