Curators name interim president for University of Missouri system | St. Louis Public Radio

Curators name interim president for University of Missouri system

Nov 12, 2015

Updated at 2:10 p.m. Nov. 12 with official announcement, news conference: Mike Middleton, a deputy chancellor emeritus at Mizzou with a long history on the campus as a student, professor and administrator, was named Thursday as interim president of the University of Missouri system.

Introduced at a news conference in Columbia to prolonged applause, Middleton, 68, said he hopes to use the high level of passion at the university to work through the problems of race that led to this week's resignation of Tim Wolfe as system president and R. Bowen Loftin as chancellor in Columbia.

"This is a learning experience for us all," he said. "We must tighten our focus, improve our culture and climate across all of our campuses and share in the responsibility to see our university enhanced in healthy ways, built upon respect, respect for others."

But, he added, the kinds of negative incidents that sparked weeks of protest will be dealt with quickly.

"Let me make it clear," Middleton said, "that one thing will not be tolerated, and that is harmful or hurtful action to any members of our university community. Any incident will be addressed swiftly, and any party involved will be held accountable for their actions."

A long history with the university

Middleton retired earlier this year after 30 years at the university. Since leaving Mizzou, the Missouri Supreme court named Middleton as one of three co-chairs of the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Fairness in state courts.

A graduate of Mizzou's law school, Middleton worked as a trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and served as assistant deputy director of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

Mike Middleton spent 30 years at the University of Missouri Columbia, 17 of which he served as deputy chancellor
Credit Courtesy University of Missouri Columbia

A university spokesman said Thursday that Wolfe's salary, at $459,000 a year, ends with Middleton's appointment and he has not received a severance package from the university.

Middleton graduated from Mizzou in 1968 and from its law school in 1971. He returned to the campus as a law professor in 1985 and later took an administrative post as well.

In a statement released by the university, Donald Cupps, president of the Board of Curators, said of the appointment, which was made after a three-hour closed meeting Wedneseday:

“Mike Middleton is the best person to lead the system during this critical period of transition, with 30 years of leadership experience on the MU campus and past service as a civil rights attorney. Mike’s outstanding managerial skills and knowledge of the UM System and its four campuses, make him the leader we need to advance our university system forward.”

Middleton recalled that he has been involved, as a student and as an administrator, with three separate sets of demands from African-American students at Mizzou. They have brought about change since he was a student, he said, but more needs to be done.

"I cannot deny that we've made remarkable progress since 1969," he said. "I kept those demands on my desk, and I've been checking them off. We've come close, we've made progress, and we'll continue to make progress.

"This university needs to be a place where young, intelligent, thoughtful people can feel free to learn, to interact and to grow."

He said he did not feel limited in what he can do just because his appointment is on an interim basis, adding that he feels he has the full support of the curators "in doing what needs to be done, and I intend to do that."

Moving forward 

One big initiative, Middleton said, has to be discussion of the issues on campus.

"One of the things impeding our ability to get beyond this problem is our inability to talk about it," he said. "We've got to be truthful. We've got to get the facts on the table. We've to understand the ugly, ugly history that permeates everything we do in the institutions in this country.

"Once we get the truth on the table, we are in position to reconcile those differences and move forward. I am convinced at this institution, at this time, that is what we need to do."

Middleton acknowledged that the fact that he is African American was a factor in his appointment, and it has to be taken into account moving forward.

"Color in this country is an issue that affects many many decisions that are made," he said, "positively and negatively. We need to understand that, accept and get beyond it eventually.

"We need to talk about this. We need to come together, let our guard down, sit across the table person to person, and respectfully discuss these issues."

Asked about his feelings as recent events unfolded in Columbia, Middleton said:
"I was glad that I had retired. It was embarrassing. It was hurtful. It was scary. It crossed my mind that my 30-year career her had been a total failure."

To current students, he asked that they cooperate with the campus police department in helping to quell any incidents that occur.

"MUPD cannot be everywhere," he said. "They cannot walk hand in hand with every student. This is a tense situation. Be careful. Report anything you see, cooperate with MUPD and hopefully at some point this kind of turmoil will dissipate."

And to students who might be wondering whether they should avoid Mizzou, Middleton stressed that the issues that have arisen in Columbia are going on all over the country. He added:

"If you think you can go to a university somewhere else, please think again, and please come here, because we are serious about being a university system that steps forward to deal with a serious problem."

Experience as a student

In an interview with television station KOMU in Columbia in 2013, Middleton recalled his days as an undergraduate student at Mizzou. Fewer than 1,000 African-American students were enrolled at the campus, and many student organizations were not welcoming to blacks. Only one black fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi, was on campus.

"I can remember frequently getting racial epithets hurled at me out of cars passing by at night accompanied by empty beer cans and sometimes half full beer cans," Middleton said.

In response, he helped form the Legion of Black Collegians on campus and became its first president. He also helped form a chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity at Mizzou.

After becoming the third black graduate of the law school in Columbia, he worked for the federal government, helping to improve conditions in his home town of Jackson, Miss. He returned to the Mizzou law school as a professor in 1985.

In St. Louis, Middleton served with William Danforth and Frankie Freeman on a task force that worked to determine the future of the city schools. One of his colleagues on that panel, Dr. Donald Suggs, praised Middleton as a smart leader who can do a good job if he has the resources to make changes that will calm the situation in Columbia and systemwide.

"I think he's a credible person with the students and the faculty as well," Suggs said, "and that will have a lot to do with his ability to assure them that this is something that can be addressed more aggressively in the future."

In a statement, UMSL Chancellor Tom George said:

"Michael Middleton has a long and well-respected association with the University of Missouri System and an intimate understanding of the various issues affecting the four campuses.  He is a good friend to me personally and to our campus in particular, and I look forward to working with him to ensure that UMSL and its sister campuses provide all of our students the opportunities to succeed and excel in a positive environment of inclusion and encouragement."

And Gov. Jay Nixon added this:

“I commend the Board of Curators for selecting Mike Middleton, an accomplished and widely-respected leader who is deeply committed to the university and its students. With interim leadership in place, I urge the Board of Curators to select a permanent president through a process that is thoughtful, transparent, inclusive, and efficient.  I look forward to working with President Middleton and his permanent successor to continue to improve higher education for the benefit of all Missouri students.”

The university also announced that Loftin would be stepping down immediately from his post as chancellor at Mizzou, instead of waiting until the end of the year as originally announced. Hank Foley, who has been in charge of research at both the Columbia campus and the four-campus system, will be interim chancellor at Mizzou.