In the wake of what he called a “perfect storm,” interim President Mike Middleton said Friday that the four-campus University of Missouri system should seize the opportunity to show its leadership on issues that prompted the resignations of two top officials.
Middleton took over as head of the system last month after Tim Wolfe resigned following lengthy student protests over racial incidents and other issues. The same day, the chancellor of the university’s Columbia campus, R. Bowen Loftin, also announced he would step down into a lesser role at Mizzou.
After widespread attention to the university’s problems – problems that he says affect higher education all over as well as the society at large – Middleton told the university’s Board of Curators that it’s time to regain public confidence and turn things around.
“We were thrust into the national spotlight,” he told a meeting at the university’s St. Louis campus, “and you can either take that as an embarrassment and a harmful incident. I would much rather view it as us being chosen to take the lead to set the world right.”
And, Middleton said, the university’s experiences have to be viewed in a wider context.
“The unfortunate events that captured much attention from the world in recent months are not a reflection of our great university,” he said, “but rather those incidents represent a longstanding – I repeat, a longstanding – national, societal flaw.
“We are fortunate now to have an opportunity to become stronger and more equipped to handle these very difficult issues that have a presence on all university campuses, and we fully intend to provide a positive examples for our peers around the nation to learn from, rather than to shy away from these experiences.”
Middleton’s speech came at the first regularly scheduled meeting of the curators since the student demonstrations prompted the executive actions in Columbia. Middleton called the events “an extraordinary time” for the university, “a time of significant challenges to be sure, but also a time of significant opportunity.”
He said that while public attention focused on racial incidents at Mizzou, the upheaval really was the culmination of unhappiness over several different issues, including graduate students’ loss of health insurance; decisions regarding Planned Parenthood; leadership changes at the university’s health center in Columbia; and faculty doubts over academic freedom.
“Acknowledging these factors provides for all that we’re experiencing,” Middleton said. “But it does not diminish the importance of or lesson the desire to better address the concerns expressed by our students of color and other marginalized students.”
At a news conference after the board’s meeting, Middleton noted that the protests in Columbia were a classic example of students highlighting problems that have troubled the nation as a whole.
“This is a national issue,” he said. “This is a reflection of a longstanding national problem. And, as is typical in our society, thoughtful young people raise issues to our attention frequently when they have not been heard, and they see those issues not being resolved sufficiently.
“So every institution of higher education is going to be faced with this, and many, many other institutions in our society are going to be faced with these issues. We view this as an opportunity for the University of Missouri, here in the heartland, to step forward and develop effective, longstanding solutions.”
To restore what he called the luster of the university, Middleton said he will continue an effort he has already begun to meet with all groups concerned with the school’s operations – students, faculty, staff, alumni, legislators, donors and others.
“The trust of our constituents is dependent upon our addressing these issues as we said we would,” he said, “It is my intent to do that.”
Middleton and the curators discussed the attention and resources that the university has paid over the past two years to the problems of sexual assault on campus and more general gender-related issues that fall under Title IX.
Noting what he considers to be the success of that effort, curator Donald Cupps, who served his last meeting as chairman of the board, said the university wants to take the same kind of lead in handling racial issues.
Curators elected Pam Henrickson of Jefferson City as chair of the board for next year and Maurice Graham of Clayton as vice chairman. Henrickson said her main theme for the coming year would be to develop and promote a culture of respect throughout the university system.
At a news conference after the meeting, Henrickson said the board was going to meet in executive session Friday afternoon to talk about a search process for a permanent president for the system, with the hope that the process could be completed in the next calendar year.
“But, it’s much more important that we get the right candidate than we meet a deadline,” she added.
Asked if he was interested in having the job on a permanent basis, Middleton responded:
“Not at the moment.”
Did that mean he was leaving the possibility open?
“I leave everything open,” he said.
The University of Missouri’s Board of Curators holds the license for St. Louis Public Radio.
Follow Dale Singer on Twitter: @dalesinger