Last fall, amid demonstrations in Columbia that ended the tenure of the University of Missouri’s president and the chancellor at Mizzou, the system became a national focus for campus problems about racial diversity and inclusion.
Now, the system’s interim president said Friday, it is becoming a model for the best way to work through those problems.
“As I travel to conventions and meetings across the country,” Mike Middleton told the university’s board of curators meeting in Rolla, “other institutions and leaders are watching us closely, to see what we're doing to address these issues. Many campuses had demonstrations this fall. We're all being asked about the best way to address those students who have felt marginalized or neglected on college campuses across the country, and to create a better learning environment for them.
“Others are learning from the examples that we are setting. We are clearly becoming seen as a national leader in addressing these issues, which is something I take great pride in. But as always, there is a great deal more work to be done.”
Middleton was named interim president just a few days after Tim Wolfe resigned as head of the system and R. Bowen Loftin stepped down as chancellor of the Columbia campus. Since that time, he said, his main focus has been on how to create a more inviting, a more nurturing and more inclusive campus community. A big step forward in that effort, he said, was the naming of Kevin McDonald as the system's first diversity, equity and inclusion officer, starting June 1.
A big part of the process, Middleton added, is imaging what the University of Missouri should be, then working to make that dream come true.
“While this stemmed from the current dialogue on our campuses regarding diversity, equity and inclusion,” he said, “the conversation is really much bigger than that. Where do want the University of Missouri to be in the next century for future generations? What does an inclusive learning and working environment mean to our students, our faculty, our staff and our administration?
“These ongoing conversations have been and will continue to be difficult. Having them takes confidence, courage and leadership from everyone involved. Each of us who believes in a bright future for this great university must ask ourselves if we are willing to become comfortable with the uncomfortable. Often, when we are uncomfortable, it is because we are in the process of learning. This is an important part of advancing our individual and collective growth.”
Using his own family background, Middleton referred to a poem titled “My Country” written by his great-grandfather, Samuel Alfred Beadle, a lawyer. It was dramatized by UM students as part of National Poetry Month.
“I’m normally a very private person,” Middleton told the curators, “and my heart is seldom worn on my sleeve. But this institution is a big part of who I am. I believe, and I truly hope, that this poem will spark conversation around creating the university that we can imagine.”
He noted that the poem speaks of a country that is loved, even though African Americans like Beadle were often treated harshly. Middleton said that notion can help bring healing and progress to the university today.
“Much like my great grandfather's patriotism and affection for his country, despite the oppression that he faced,” he said, “our students have a deep love for this institution, as does each member of our university family on all four campuses, in extension and in our health facilities.
“Each of us must take a deep look down inside ourselves to determine how we can affirm our love for this institution, and use it to strengthen our desire to press forward for a bright future despite any obstacles or challenges that cross our paths. Together we must first imagine a university that can be, and then create it, together.”
Middleton also addressed the new policy adopted by the curators on Thursday that would drop retiree insurance benefits for any new employees hired after Jan. 1, 2018, as well as employees who will have less than five years of service by that date. The change does not affect the university’s pension system.
Middleton said that the change will reduce the system’s future costs for retirees by more than $5 billion by the year 2050 and preserves access to retiree insurance benefits for more than 75 percent of current employees.
He praised system officials who came up with the changes, which he said would help make sure the university uses its money wisely.
“As one of state's largest employers,” Middleton said, “we have a real responsibility to our employees to make retiree insurance benefits available to as many current employees as possible. But we also have the fiduciary responsibility to be good stewards of tuition and taxpayer dollars.”
The University of Missouri’s Board of Curators holds the license for St. Louis Public Radio.
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