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Murray State President on Free Speech, Budget Process, 'Presidential Lecture' on Diversity

Dr. Bob Davies, Murray State University

In a two-part conversation on Sounds Good, Matt Markgraf speaks with Murray State President Dr. Bob Davies, recapping some of the takeaways from the Board of Regents meeting last Friday. In the first part, they discuss the status of free speech on college and university campuses and Davies thoughts on free speech at Murray State. They also talk about the budget planning process for the next fiscal year and how the university is navigating a budget reduction of $4.5 million as it relates to enrollment and tuition. In the second part, they discuss the experiential learning EDGE Center, the Center for International Business and Trade in Paducah and why this year's Presidential Lecture has a focus on diversity in higher education. 

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Free Speech

Murray State University President Dr. Bob Davies kicked off the recent Board of Regents meeting describing the merits of free speech on college campuses, particularly Murray State. Quoting Forrest C. Pogue, he said "The hope of democracy depends on the diffusion of knowledge." While there isn't a free speech issue on campus, Davies said, he noticed issues on other campuses - referring to an incident at U.C. Berkeley in California (in which protests against a speaking engagement involving former Breitbart editor and provocative personality Milo Yiannopoulos).

Davies said this legislative session includes bills related to freedom of speech. Senate Bill 17 relates to religious speech, political speech, etc. on campuses.

He said it was important to bring up free speech to the Board of Regents, who set the tone and marching orders for a university. He said it's necessary to bring up different ideas and opinions in a manner that allows individuals to have civil and civic debate and felt it was important to address the "marketplace of ideas." Davies said he wants faculty, staff and students to know he will defend the ideal of free speech. Refering to an interview with Murray State News, he said free speech isn't necessarily "comfortable" and while it's important to keep people physically and mentally safe, education, learning and progressing are areas where levels of comfort can be stretched.

"We don't and we should not teach individuals what to think but how to think, how to register ideas, how to be logical and critical and mindful, how to do research and how to gain and garner wisdom. and to me that's the important part," Davies said.

He encouraged students to go beyond their comfort zones and said now is the time to embrace diversity, bring thoughts together, understand differences and work around them or work with them.

Budget Process

One of the big takeaways from the recent Board of Regents meeting was guidance on the next fiscal year budget and a $4.5 million budget reduction. Davies said these were two related financial items discussed at the meeting: this year's fiscal situation and the budget planning process for next year.

Unpacking the enrollment challenges, Davies said the university is coming from a five or six year horizon of large freshmen classes and transfer enrollments. As those classes moved through the system, many were not retained and those who were successful led to large graduation classes. There have been smaller freshmen classes over the last couple of years and retention has not been as high following an increase in academic standards. As such, for the next couple of years there will be smaller junior and senior classes. However, he noted this year's freshmen class and transfer numbers show a slight increase, so the trajectory is on an upward trend.

At the board meeting, a $6.5 million downward adjustment from this year's budget was mentioned, citing numbers from the end of December. Since then, there has been some gain, but the big number will come from performance in the summer, which is expected to significantly lower that number. Contingency funding for this year will help shore up the remainder of that amount. Davies said there has also been some general fund areas identified to offset the losses. He said the fiscal year will end close to balance. Davies encourages prudent spending for the remainder of the year and said other factors will mitigate the shortfall, for instance unemployment insurance is lower than projected.

Davies said Murray State is looking to have a higher freshmen class this upcoming year than the previous year, but the university is still a few years out from graduating the smaller classes. For budgeting purposes, a conservative estimate will factor in a $4.5 million enrollment decline. He said this can be offset by various things like a tuition increase or cuts from the general fund.

As the next academic year comes closer, Davies said university officials will begin counting the next freshmen class, which is estimated to be about 6% higher. He said that revenue increase won't be counted until the students arrive on campus. For now, he's working with vice presidents and deans to identify general fund areas to offset losses and is projecting some cost increase for students. Tuition levels are yet to be determined. The Council on Post-Secondary Education has suggested a 3% tuition cap for Murray State, but he said the university will be arguing for some flexibility. Legislation in Frankfort will also be taken into account in the next budget. The budget advisory committee is crafting various budget scenarios and will meet again in the next couple of weeks. "At the end of the day we will have a balanced budget," Davies said.

The ideal Murray State freshmen class is around 1,700. This year was 1,502 and the goal for the next academic year is 1,600. The long-term transfer goal is 800. This upcoming academic year's goal is 700. Davies said reaching these numbers would reduce the fluctuations in enrollment and budget. The 1,700 number, he said, is good for the notion of "family" in the campus community. Reaching a higher number like 2,000 runs the risk of losing that community and family bond, he said.

"Unless something drastic happens tuition will go up. We are very mindful of students of the financial pressures on them and their families and so we will obviously have that in our mindset," Davies said, adding that the university needs a model that works for families but also for the university. He cited a conversation that identified students who ended up not going to Murray State went to other universities: University of Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky University, Western Kentucky University, Centre College and a university in Tennessee, which have higher tuition than Murray State.

Davies a review of programs will also be a part of the budget process. Last year's budget discussions committed to studies involving reforming health services and auxiliary services on campus (housing, dining, printing services, etc.). Those reports were discussed at the recent Board of Regents meeting and may be included in future budget discussions. Davies said there is much work to be done in answering questions: what type of health services should be offered, who and how will those services be paid for, where is the biggest return, could a partner expand on those services?

Experiential and Entrepreneurial Activities

The EDGE Center is a hub for experiential learning on campus underway. Davies said it is the corralling of university resources and creating synergies. The idea is to get the best "bang for the buck" without losing the 'decentralized model' on campus and making sure there is still flexibility in the university. It is not a 'huge budget increase,' he said and will use primarily existing staff and space in the Blackburn Science Building.

The Center for International Business and Trade in Paducah, developed through the Arthur J. Bauernfeind College of Business, will leverage the city's free trade zone, barge industry, port system and Murray State's Paducah campus. It will use the supply chain management program and international business management opportunities to create a hub, answering source, continuing education, conferences, symposiums and building of students. Describing it as a "win win situation," Davies said he will be in Paducah over the next couple of weeks meeting with industry leaders who will financially support the efforts of this program. "We've already received a lot of commendation and offers of collaboration from the world trade network in the Lexington area and various other associations that are eager to make sure that this happens because they can see the long range benefit of it."

Presidential Lecture

The next Presidential Lecture Series is March 9 and titled "We have a dream. Are we living it?" The lecture focuses on diversity in higher education. Three Murray State alumni deliver a panel discussion: Dr. MarTeze Hammonds (Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion, Arkansas Tech University) will talk about personal perspectives from MSU and his career in higher ed over the last decade, Dr. Walter Bumphus (President and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges and on the MSU Board of Regents) talks about national challenges and opportunities, Dr. Jerry Sue Thornton (CEO of DreamCatcher Educational Consulting Service and former MSU Regent) will discuss civic and industry leadership.

Davies said it's important, particularly given current issues in the national community, to bring together three experts on making diversity initiatives not just a single measuring point but a strategic agenda and mindset for universities. He said the conversations will be thought provoking and might make some people uncomfortable, which he said isn't a bad thing. "I think expanding that a little bit and being challenged is an important part and at an important time especially right now where we are in the country."

Concluding, Davies said so often people focus on the challenges and it's important to not get lost in that and recognize things that are going well. "We have amazing people, amazing people from top to bottom at Murray State University who contribute to our success every single day and to me that's what Murray State is all about."

Matt Markgraf joined the WKMS team as a student in January 2007. He's served in a variety of roles over the years: as News Director March 2016-September 2019 and previously as the New Media & Promotions Coordinator beginning in 2011. Prior to that, he was a graduate and undergraduate assistant. He is currently the host of the international music show Imported on Sunday nights at 10 p.m.
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