The interim president of the University of Missouri system said that even as memories of last fall’s racial protests in Columbia persist, the school continues to perform valuable services for the state.
But the only African-American member of the university’s Board of Curators wants to make sure that the system’s new emphasis on diversity results in action, not just talk.
Interim President Michael Middleton and curator Mary Nelson of St. Louis shared their views Friday during the board’s meeting on the Mizzou campus. It was the first meeting for Nelson and two other new curators Gov. Jay Nixon named to bring the board up to its full complement of nine members as the search for a new system president continues.
Giving what is considered the state of the university address, customarily delivered by the president at the curators’ June meeting, Middleton noted that efforts are ongoing for the school to regain trust and reaffirm its value for Missouri residents. He began his position a few days after Tim Wolfe resigned in November, following racial protests at Mizzou.
“As we’ve worked to get back on track and move the university forward,” Middleton told the curators, “following the events of last November, our challenge, among many, has been to promote and recognize the amount of positive work that has been and continues to be done at the university. During my interim presidency, we’ve worked tirelessly to rebuild trust and confidence in our great university."
“The University of Missouri is much, much more than the events that occurred last fall. Not for a moment during the whirlwind did we lose sight of our fundamental mission of pursuing teaching, research, service and economic development for the benefit of the people of Missouri,” he said.
“The state of the university is strong, and getting stronger.”
Middleton’s remarks came after a report from Kevin McDonald, who assumed his position as the university’s chief diversity officer on June 1. He talked in broad terms about the importance of having a diverse university where everyone’s voice is included in important decisions.
He noted that the university will conduct a diversity audit that he expects to lead to a more specific framework on how the school can move forward.
Nelson expressed the view that such a plan, and any actions that follow, will be the key to whether the university really makes progress.
“What I’m looking forward to,” she said, “is a concrete proposal, action plan, strategies, that we can buy into, so that we know where you’re going with this, and what we’re going to achieve when we get there.
“I’ve been dealing with diversity issues as long as I’ve been alive, and it’s very difficult, once you raise awareness of the issue, to get people to do something concrete other than just feeling better now that they’re doing something and now that they’ve hired somebody. I want to get past the feel-good, touchy-feely stuff, into some concrete change.”
The curators voted Friday to approve a request to the Missouri legislature for more than $133 million in appropriations for the coming fiscal year for capital improvements on the university’s four campuses.
Included in the request is nearly $26 million for renovation of Stadler Hall on the St. Louis campus. That project would go with the current work on Benton Hall to complete updating science classrooms, laboratories and other facilities at UMSL.
Brian Burnett, the system’s financial vice president, noted that there are currently $555 million worth of ongoing projects at the university. He pointed out that the projects on the current wish list for funding by the state either tie in with the university’s emphasis on STEM education — science, technology, engineering and math — or would help feed graduates into jobs that the state wants to fill.
He noted that next year’s capital request is much larger than what the state got in this past year. With changes coming in many state offices, plus in legislative leadership that deals with education, he wanted to make sure that the university’s needs are known.
“This year was a really skinny year for capital,” Burnett said, “but if next year is a year that is more robust, we need to have projects on the list.”
The University of Missouri’s Board of Curators holds the license for St. Louis Public Radio.
Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger