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UM will announce new president on Wednesday

Millennium Student Center at UMSL
File: Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

Updated Oct. 31 at 3:05 p.m. with background — Nearly one year after former President Tim Wolfe stepped down amid racial unrest in Columbia, the University of Missouri system plans to introduce his successor on Wednesday.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the new president will be Mun Y. Choi, the provost at the University of Connecticut.

Unlike the university’s last two presidents, Wolfe and Gary Forsee, Choi comes to the University of Missouri from an academic background.

He joined the mechanical engineering department at Connecticut in 2008, after serving on the faculty at the University of Illinois from 1994 to 2000 and at Drexel University starting in 2000. He received his B.S. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1987 and M.A. and Ph.D. in Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering from Princeton University.

According to the university’s website  his research at UConn, funded by various federal and industrial sponsors, has focused on advancing the understanding of sooting and radiation on droplet combustion and soot diagnostic techniques.

Forsee resigned from the presidency in 2011 to care for his wife, Sherry, who had been diagnosed with cancer. After a lengthy search, the curators hired Wolfe, who had grown up in Columbia and was a football hero in high school. His parents were both teachers, but he pursued a business career.

When a series of racially charged incidents occurred on the Columbia campus last fall, Wolfe was criticized for his response. The issue led to demonstrations and a hunger strike by one student that was backed by the Mizzou football team, whose members said they would not play in an upcoming game if Wolfe remained in office.

Wolfe then announced his resignation last Nov. 9, saying that took full responsibility for the "frustration and inaction that has occurred." Wolfe asked everyone to "use my resignation to heal and start talking again, to make the changes necessary. ... Please use this resignation to heal, not to hate."

By the end of the day, Loftin’s departure as chancellor at Mizzou was also announced. He has remained at the university in a research capacity.

Later that week, the curators named Mike Middleton as interim president. He later said he did not want to take the job on a permanent basis.

The university announced its plans for a new president on Monday, about 30 minutes after members of the Board of Curators went into closed session via teleconference. Before that, with no discussion, the curators voted unanimously  to approve procedures to govern any vote by faculty of its St. Louis campus to join a union.

The procedures, which were made public last week, drew a strong objection from a representative of the Service Employees International Union. It is working with faculty members at UMSL to organize a chapter made up of all faculty on the campus, from part-timers to tenured professors.

Mary Nelson, one of three curators from the St. Louis area, did not take part in the meeting. The other eight curators all voted to approve the procedures, which Jill Pollock, the system’s interim vice president for human resources, said is supported by UMSL Chancellor Tom George.

Pollock said the process “is fair and appropriate for the UMSL campus at this time.”

After the process was made public on Friday, Nancy Cross, an organizer with the SEIU in St. Louis, said it “includes several specifics that are unreasonable and do not follow the guidelines established for decades.”

“The UM system and UMSL administration are creating a process that is clearly an effort to keep faculty from unionizing,” Cross said, “and is spending tax dollars to do it. We consider this another failure by administration, and another example of the blatant injustices that occur at UMSL.”

The curators met by telephone and were in open session for only three minutes before voting to go into closed session, as has been their policy when the presidential search is being discussed. Earlier this month, curators met for nearly three hours but did not reach any decision on a candidate to replace iMike Middleton.

Pam Henrickson, who chairs the board, would say at that time only that the board continues to make progress toward identifying a new president. The search process, which began early in the year, has been conducted in secret, which Henrickson has said it designed to respect and guarantee the privacy of potential candidates.

Our earlier story (Oct. 29): The University of Missouri could roll back provisions of any union contract approved by the faculty at its St. Louis campus if state officials cut university appropriations, according to a proposal before the university’s Board of Curators.

The curators are set to vote Monday on the procedures put together after teachers at UMSL presented papers earlier this month seeking an election to form a chapter of the Service Employees International Union.

While the document recognizes the right of faculty members to engage in collective bargaining, it also notes that teachers are forbidden to strike and says that any employee who does so is subject to dismissal.

The document also says that any agreement approved by the university must allow the school to unilaterally modify any provisions, including those related to wages, hours and working conditions, if annual appropriations from the General Assembly or withholding by the governor means the school receives less state funding than it did during the previous fiscal year.

Further, it says the school can make such unilateral changes in the event of “an unforeseen change in circumstances from those in existence at the time the Agreement was entered into which would result in an unreasonable burden, financial or otherwise, on the University or its employees.”

Pro and con

Since the papers seeking a union election were filed, members on both sides of the issue have carried on a spirited debate about the values of a union in general and the SEIU in particular. Professors against unionization have begun a website to make their case; union proponents began a Facebook page to state their position earlier.

Basically, those who favor a union say it will help give faculty members a stronger voice on pay, working conditions and other areas; those who oppose the union say they already have a voice in shared governance and don’t think the SEIU will strengthen that position.

Because the issue of faculty unionization is a new one for the university system, the issue has been on hold while officials put together their response to the UMSL petition for union representation. As the document notes:

“There is no process or procedure set out in the Missouri statutes, however, for faculty to engage in such collective bargaining…. Instead, under Missouri law, the University has the authority and the responsibility to establish a framework for allowing its faculty to participate in the collective bargaining process, if they so choose.”

It said that the process submitted to the curators “is designed to be fair and meet the requirements of the law. It also is designed to assure that a majority of those UMSL employees who will be affected by a union do in fact want to be represented by the union. Additionally, the proposed process takes into consideration input from the UMSL campus in order to create a process that is appropriate for the UMSL campus at this time and under current circumstances.”

It added:

“The University acknowledges that maintaining ongoing positive relations with faculty regarding decisions addressing salary and other terms and conditions of employment plays an important role toward fulfilling its mission to provide an outstanding educational value and experience to its students in a safe environment based on sound fiscal principles.”

Wally Siewert, who heads the UMSL Center for Ethics in Public Life, is one of the organizers of the union effort. He said in an email that the document shows that the UM system "intends to make this process as difficult as possible for their own employees to exercise their Missouri Constitutional rights to collectively bargain. They have given up any semblance of neutrality."

In particular, Siewert said the proposed process calls for the vote to be administered by the university, not a third party, and it unfairly shortens the time that union cards would be valid.

Plus, he said, "their description of the negotiating process threatens the idea of negotiating in good faith before we have even begun. They give themselves the right to unilaterally declare an impasse, without any description of what that might look like, and simply impose their contract....

"Most importantly, their response makes very clear that the system had discarded any idea of being neutral on this subject. They are doing everything they possibly can within legal gray areas to make the organizing of their faculty into a collective bargaining unit as difficult as possible. That is deeply disappointing from a system that purports to value its faculty."

Siewert said he hopes administrator on the campus will work for a fairer process. 

"UMSL administrators are mostly, in my opinion, dedicated academics working hard under difficult circumstances," he said. "The fact that the system is making it even more difficult for them to protect the interests of their own faculty is deeply disappointing."

Nancy Cross, an SEIU organizer, had this response in an email:

"The process the school has proposed and plans to adopt on Monday includes several specifics that are unreasonable and do not follow the guidelines established for decades. The UM system and UMSL administration are creating a process that is clearly an effort to keep faculty from unionizing, and is spending tax dollars to do it.

"We consider this another failure by administration, and another example of the blatant injustices that occur at UMSL."

Kevin Fernlund, a history professor who has been active in opposing a union, said in an email that he thinks the rules set out in the document are fair and he urged the curators to adopt them without change.

How the process would unfold

Under the procedures drawn up for the curators’ approval, when a petition signed by at least 30 percent of the unit to be covered by the union is submitted to campus officials, and the signatures are verified by an independent agency, such as the League of Women Voters, an election via secret ballot will be scheduled within 60 days.

Before the balloting takes place, the university would have the right to “freely express its opinion about whether or not” the union should be approved.

On the subject of who could be members of the union, the proposal said:

“To avoid a division of loyalties and conflicts of interest, supervisory employees … shall not be included within the same bargaining unit as non-supervisory employees and shall not be part of the Unit.” Those exempt from the union include administrators, starting with the chancellor, and department chairs and directors.

If a majority of those who would be covered by the union approve the proposal, the union would be certified, and within four weeks contract talks would begin. If the union and the university could not reach an agreement, the school could impose its final offer.

The document says the school will not approve any agreement “that diminishes or compromises the University’s ability to make administrative decisions and educational policy decisions including, but not limited to, curriculum decisions.”

University officials have said little about the unionization effort. But interim system President Mike Middleton was unenthusiastic about the progress when asked about it at a news conference earlier this month.

"I think we have a shared governance system at the University of Missouri system that is well equipped to handle the concerns of faculty, students and administrators," Middleton said. "I do question the need to bring in a third party to be engaged in our fairly well-established process of shared governance.

"I would rather relate directly with our faculty than to have to relate to a third party to address their concerns."

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

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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