© 2022 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

With three members gone, UM curators face big issues

Former UM curator David Steward
University of Missouri

As they set tuition rates for the next school year, deal with the continued fallout from the resignation of a president and begin the process to find his replacement, the University of Missouri Board of Curators will operate at two-thirds strength.

All six of the seats on the board that usually has nine members will be filled by white lawyers, who will have to deal with the issues of race that prompted protests in Columbia and echoes throughout the four-campus system. And it could be mid-May at the earliest before any new members join the board.

Until last week, the board had two African-American members among eight curators – and the only non-lawyer on the board. Then, the resignation of Yvonne Sparks of St. Louis was announced on Wednesday, and David Steward of St. Louis County submitted his letter of resignation to Gov. Jay Nixon on Friday.

In both cases, they said that the duties of a curator at this tumultuous time – what Sparks called in an interview “a perfect storm” – were detracting from their ability to carry out their professional duties. Sparks is an executive with the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, and Steward is chairman of World Wide Technology, a company he co-founded.

Steward’s term as a curator would have been expired at the end of this year. Sparks attended only one meeting, in December at the university’s St. Louis campus, and had not been confirmed by the Senate. Her term was set to expire on Jan. 1, 2021.

In his resignation letter, Steward told Nixon he was stepping down immediately and would not attend any future board meetings. The board is set to meet on Thursday and Friday of this week in Columbia.

“It has been an honor to serve on the board for the past five years,” Steward wrote. “However, we have been blessed with substantial opportunities to continue to expand our business globally. This ultimately will create jobs for the state of Missouri, and I am choosing to make that my primary focus. I know this aligns with your mission.

“It has been an enlightening experience and I pray and hope the very best for the University of Missouri System and the Board of Curators moving forward. Our students are important and will continue to have a vital role in our future.”

Steward did not respond to a request for comment. In an interview, Sparks repeated that her departure was prompted by the heavy workload for the curators, and she added that she had no problems with her relationships with board members.

“They welcomed me warmly,” she said.

The third vacancy on the board was created in November when Ann Covington of Columbia, the first female judge appointed to the Missouri Supreme Court, stepped down for personal reasons.

Pam Henrickson of Jefferson City, who began her term as chair of the board in January, did not respond to a request for an interview but released this statement through the university:

“We are always disappointed when a curator is unable to fulfill his or her term, but understand that the current demands on our curators can make it difficult to serve. It is important to note that we still have individuals on the board who care passionately about the University of Missouri System.

“And while there has been turnover on the board over the past few months, each circumstance has been unique in itself and the board remains deeply committed to moving the university forward and serving all 6 million Missourians through our mission of education, research, service and economic development.” 

The spokesman for the four-campus system, John Fougere, said the lack of minority members on the board should not make the presidential search less inclusive.

"The board has already made its intentions known to utilize a larger search committee than during previous searches," he said, "and one that is representative of all aspects of our campus community, including students, faculty and staff, as they go forward with the search process.”

No new members soon

The Senate’s Gubernatorial Appointments committee is headed by Ron Richard, who is also president pro tem of the Senate. A member of his staff confirmed Monday that he does not plan to consider any other appointees for the Board of Curators in the session that ends on May 13. Curators named after that date could serve without confirmation until the Senate reconvenes next January.

The nine-member board has to have at least one member from each of the state’s eight congressional districts, and no more than five can be from any one political party. Steward was on the board as a Republican, Sparks as a Democrat and Covington as an independent.

With the departure of Sparks and Steward, only Maurice Graham, a Democrat from Clayton who is the current vice president, represents the St. Louis area. Also on the board as a non-voting student member is Tracy Mulderig, a graduate student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Her term expired at the end of December, but her replacement has not yet been named. She said she plans to remain on the board through this week’s meeting, when tuition rates for the coming school year could be set. At its meeting at UMSL in December, curators discussed a proposed tuition schedule that included no increase for resident undergraduate students this fall.

Fougere said the reduction of St. Louis area curators from three to one will not mean the St. Louis campus will get short shrift from the board.

“We have six individuals on the board that care passionately about the University of Missouri system and are keenly aware of the way the university doesn’t just serve one area but it serves all six million Missourians," he said.

We are always disappointed when a curator is unable to fulfill his or her term, but understand that the current demands on our curators can make it difficult to serve. -- Curator Chair Pam Henrickson

Besides tuition, the biggest task facing the curators is finding a new president to succeed Tim Wolfe. He stepped down in November, as did R. Bowen Loftin, the chancellor of the university’s Columbia campus, in the wake of racial protests, including a hunger strike.

Loftin remains at Mizzou as a coordinator of research; Hank Foley is currently the interim chancellor. Mike Middleton, a deputy chancellor emeritus on the Columbia campus, is serving as interim president of the system.

Last month, curators set broad guidelines for the search for Wolfe’s replacement. They plan to hire a search firm and appoint a search committee with representatives from a variety of university constituencies, including alumni and the community at large. Names of initial candidates would be kept confidential, but as the field is narrowed the search could be opened to include public forums around the state. The final decision would be made by the curators themselves.

The search plan is set to be completed at this week’s meeting. After the meeting in St. Louis in December, Henrickson said she hopes the search process could be completed by the end of this calendar year.

Middleton, who had retired from his full-time job at Mizzou last year, said in December he was not ruling out seeking the job on a permanent basis.

Besides finding a new president of the system, the curators are also faced with a controversy stemming from an email Wolfe sent last month to university donors and others. In the email, as first reported by the Columbia Daily Tribune, he criticizes Loftin, Middleton, former Mizzou football coach Gary Pinkel and others for their behavior during the student protests that led up to his resignation on Nov. 9.

He also asked recipients of the email to lobby curators on his behalf for a severance package following his resignation. Fougere acknowledged that talks about such a package have been held, but no resolution has been reached.

The University of Missouri’s Board of Curators holds the license for St. Louis Public Radio.

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.