The interim president of the University of Missouri said Friday that the school has to stop looking backward at the recent turmoil and concentrate on moving forward on issues of race and diversity.
But before he spoke, a student panel told members of the Board of Curators that such progress won’t happen until university leaders pay more attention to what students want and need.
The sharp contrast came into focus at the board’s meeting on the Columbia campus, one day after the curators’ meeting was interrupted by students reiterating their demands for more diversity. Those demands led to the resignation of system President Tim Wolfe and the demotion of Mizzou Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin in November.
Wolfe’s replacement, Mike Middleton, told the curators that he has spent much of his time since being appointed interim president in November discussing the state of the university system with lawmakers, faculty, staff, students, parents, alumni and others.
“Everyone has true concerns about this university and our future,” he said. “In fact, most of what I’ve heard is blame -- a lot of people and groups blaming other people and groups for what our beloved university is facing. I can tell you it’s downright exhausting. It can literally sap your strength.”
Middleton cited efforts in recent months to answer some of the students' criticisms about a lack of diversity and attention to equality. He noted that three finalists for the newly created position of chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer for the system will appear at public forums in Columbia later this month, and $921,000 has been set aside for diversity initiatives in Columbia, St. Louis, Rolla and Kansas City.
But, Middleton noted, universities nationwide, as well as the country as a whole, are facing similar problems, so no one can expect the University of Missouri to come up with satisfying solutions quickly.
“These problems need to be addressed,” he said, “and there is a responsible and professional manner in which to do that. It’s inevitable, in the highly charged and polarized world in which we operate, that one cannot make everyone 100 percent happy. Someone will always be dissatisfied.
“But we must come together and make decisions in the best interests of the university and its future development and the future development of our society. To resolve the difficulties we face, we must get away from the blame game and focus our efforts on developing sustainable solutions.”
He urged lawmakers not to carry through on some of the discussions about cutting appropriations for the university because of the recent problems. At a news conference after the meeting, he said such reductions would be counterproductive.
“This is a very serious situation,” Middleton said. “Significant budget cuts could do very, very serious damage to the university. I understand their anger. I understand their frustration. I understand their embarrassment on behalf of their constituents. I don’t understand why the university should suffer.”
Middleton said that the problems in Columbia should not be the dominant image of the university in the public mind.
“We are much more than that,” he said. “We must stop trying to fix blame and focus on fixing problems. It’s time to stop looking in the rear-view mirror and start looking at the road ahead of us. It’s time to move forward.”
And he took particular exception to people who he has heard say that the university has become a zoo where the animals are in charge, or that the inmates are running the asylum.
“Let me say we are neither an asylum nor a zoo,” Middleton said. “We are a university, discovering new knowledge, serving Missouri’s communities, teaching, mentoring, counseling, guiding young adults, developing new products. Our students are neither inmates nor animals. They are young adults that we are grooming to lead us through the 21st century.”
'Students viewed as commodities'
Before Middleton’s address, four students at Mizzou discussed diversity efforts on the campus, as part of the theme of this year’s chair of the board of curators, Pam Henrickson of Jefferson City: a culture of respect.
But the students appeared to have little respect for the efforts of the curators so far. Tim Love, an African-American graduate student, echoed some of the demands of the student protesters and said the university needs to pay more attention to the needs of individuals, not to the bottom line.
“As long as the Board of Curators prioritizes profits and wealth over and above academics,” he said, “there can never be a culture of respect. As long as student are viewed as commodities, or sources of revenue, serious measures to solidify unity will never be taken.
“If there was monetary gain in racial harmony, the University of Missouri would immediately approve diversity course requirements. They would immediately hire more African-American faculty and make sure that African-American students, Muslim students, Middle Eastern students, Latino students and LGBTQ students are properly represented and treated fairly.”
Love said he is suspicious of an emphasis on respect without creating a system where financial elements are more just.
“There will never be a culture of respect so long as the administration continues to act unilaterally,” he said, “rather than democratically.”
The students also urged members of the board to leave behind their traditional roles of overseeing how the university is run and actually go on the campuses and get to know students.
Alluding to the fact that the only two African-American members of the board, Yvonne Sparks and David Steward, resigned in recent days, Love added,:
“And it also doesn’t help that all of you are white. That sends more of a signal that there’s a gulf between us.”
Kelcea Barnes, a political science major, joined with the other students urging the curators to spend more of their time finding out what students need and how they feel.
“We’re all busy. But we’re not busy enough to get interrupted by another protest. So let’s get busy doing something substantial.”
“The world is changing,” Barnes said. “If the University of Missouri gets left behind, this institution won’t have a leg to stand on.”
No severance talks
At the news conference, Henrickson said that negotiations with Wolfe for a severance agreement following his resignation have broken off. Asked whether the university will look for another business executive to run the system, as Wolfe was, she said the question isn’t whether to find someone from industry or academia but to find the best person for the job.
She said the three empty seats on the board “certainly will impair us going forward” as the search for a new president proceeds.
The absence of Steward and Sparks, Henrickson added, will deprive the board of a special perspective. All current curators are lawyers, which Steward and Sparks are not.
“Certainly we would have valued their opinion very greatly,” she said, “not only because of their ethnicity but because of their background and experience, which is different from that of the rest of us on the board.”
The University of Missouri’s Board of Curators holds the license for St. Louis Public Radio.
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