verything seems out of cycle here this spring. Record low temperatures sweep down from the Great Lakes. Sodden fields limit the growth of cool-season plantings. Abnormal mercury readings hold back the sprouting of warm-weather crops hurried into the ground. No relief appears in sight from the excessive rainfall that has fallen repeatedly over the entire rich midwestern farm land. Small towns hold tornado watches as heavy, low dark clouds scudding over the countryside contribute to a sense of omnipresent bad weather conditions.
These are unusual, and troubling, signs, but it not so much nature that careens out of sync. Midwesterners have always contended successfully with the capriciousness, and occasional harshness, of their climate, and they will again. It is something else that creates the greatest sense of unease--a feeling of threatening man-made problems, over which they have no control, intruding on their daily lives.
Turn on your television set for the morning or evening news, and the picture conveys scenes of war and terror: a bombing in Beirut . . . a tattered American flag being removed from the rubble along with the bodies of American servicemen . . . Marines in combat gear on maneuvers at home as they prepare to relieve comrades abroad . . . rebel forces advancing through the tropical countryside of Central America amid reports about clandestine Libyan arms shipments and new evidence that the Cubans are up to their old game of exporting revolution close to U.S. borders.
These are followed by film clips of FBI agents relating how they uncovered Soviet spy activities in New York and Washington, where approaches were made on Capitol Hill. One of the agents says, phlegmatically, that they are outnumbered by the Soviet spies. And over everything hangs the continuing debate about increasing defense spending, about deploying the MX missile, about the nuclear arms race and about the growing Soviet threat.
No wonder, given such a complex of fearsome topics, that a nervous sort of tone permeates conversations. Twice in two days, for instance, during stops in neighboring states, upstanding citizens spoke apprehensively about what they perceive to be new prospects of war.
In Oklahoma, a man mentioned reports circulating among his friends of U.S. military camps being reopened. Is that true? he asked a visitor from Washington. And if so, doesn't that mean we really are getting ready for war? In Missouri, an administrator expressed the gloomy conviction that U.S. officials are preparing for war. There is no doubt about it, he asked, is there?
Understandable though these concerns are, their very intensity obscures another troubling fact of life in the nation's heartland. This one, too, is man-made, but it comes entirely from forces at home. It ap-pears certain to affect citizens here for years to come. SIGNS
Over dinner here the other night, a top official of the University of Missouri spoke at length about the impact of the recession and budget cuts on that institution. They are severe.
The faculty has shrunk, so far through attrition. There seems no immediate prospect for any help from the state legislature but, indeed, just the opposite. University officials have been forced to deal with rescissions in appropriated funds. The state lacks either the capacity or will to raise new taxes to make up the difference for higher public education.
Not surprisingly, faculty morale has plummeted. The university finds it difficult to compete for top scholars. Numbers have left. The journalism school, for example, first of its kind, once the most prestigious and now celebrating its 75th year, has been unable to fill the permanent dean's chair.
These, and other, problems raise questions about the nature of public education in this state and the future role for the university, established nearly 150 years ago as the first state university west of the Mississippi and first land-grant college in the west.
Nor is Missouri an isolated example.
On the same day that the official was delineating the situation here, trustees of the University of Illinois were approving the third stiff tuition boost in the current academic year, and the university's president was warning publicly that another will be necessary if the Illinois legislature approves further cuts in state support proposed by the governor.
The latest tuition increase means students will be paying an average of 50 percent more than they were last September. And that's only for Illinois residents. Out-of-state students will pay three times more. Figures on the increases are riveting when compared with the fees of just a year ago.
For undergraduates next fall, tuition will be 31.3 percent higher than last September. For upperclassmen, the increase will be 46.4 percent. And for medical students, tuition will rise 56.9 percent.
That may not be enough, either.
The Chicago Tribune quotes university President Stanley O. Ikenberry as saying his institution will face "a catastrophic situation" if the state legislature fails to approve the Illinois Board of Higher Education's recommendation that millions of dollars be made available to the university. Unless that recommendation is met, the university will be forced to raise tuition even higher, slash existing programs and cut enrollment, he said.
All of this raises deep concern about the battering of institutions that over the years have provided so much of the talent and leadership for their respective states.
While people here keep one eye on the weather and another on the clouds of war, perhaps they need to pay closer attention to another sign, one that should be familiar to midwesterners. Attention must be paid to what is happening to our country at home.