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UM System leaders say racial climate at Mizzou is improving

Marshall Griffin|St. Louis Public Radio

One year ago this week the University of Missouri's flagship campus in Columbia was in turmoil.

University of Missouri System president Tim Wolfe abruptly announced his resignation Nov. 9 as his leadership and handling of issues of race were strongly criticized. Several hours later, R. Bowen Loftin said he would be leaving his post as chancellor of the system's Columbia campus to coordinate university research.

Hank Foley was then moved from research  work for the system and the Columbia campus to become interim chancellor at Mizzou..

The unrest included a hunger strike by graduate student Jonathan Butler and confrontations involving students and faculty.

In announcing his resignation Wolfe said, "The question really is: why did we get to this very difficult situation? It is my belief we stopped listening to each other. We didn't respond or react. We got frustrated with each other, and we forced individuals, like Jonathan Butler, to take immediate action and unusual steps to effect change.

"This is not, I repeat, not the way change should come about. Change comes from listening, learning, caring and conversation."

Earlier this fall, UM System leaders met individually with members of the media. The idea at the time was that the interviews would be used for one-year anniversary articles and that a new president would not yet have been selected. However, University of Connecticut provost Mun Choi has been hired and will take over in March. 

What the system leaders had to say about such things as whether and how change has come about remain valid. The interviews did take place before racial problems at Columbia led to a fraternity being suspended.

One of the changes was hiring Kevin McDonald as the system's first chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer. He has previously been vice president and associate provost for diversity and inclusion at Rochester Institute of Technology and before that served in a similar post at Virginia Tech.

Six months after he was hired, McDonald explained how he goes about his work.

  "From my perspective, one of my rules has been the check-in, in other words, can I get a campus temperature? The other part for me is to create this road map, these bread crumbs to follow around for diversity and inclusion, and to start the vetting process to get input from faculty, staff, (and) students; I think that allows me to see what people are thinking about, in relation to how it will fit with our campus community and at the system level as well."

McDonald also talked about lingering sentiments on the Columbia campus.

"I haven’t detected any ill feelings, per se…I think there's a commitment to the institution and the system, (and) a desire to move forward in a way that's reflective of the past but that informs that we learn from and chart a positive and productive future…I think there's a desire to have greater visibility from administration, transparency, and to see pervasive leadership commitment, but I think those things are well underway to build confidence."

He also said that he has not been hampered by having only an interim president an interim chancellor to work with.

"Not at all…it sure didn’t hamper my decision to come here…I was really grateful for the stability and leadership…I think I’m offered a level of historical perspective, (from) president Middleton probably more than (from) chancellor Foley, but I think it helped build a level of confidence in the continuity of leadership that surrounded them to move the organization forward."

That interim system president, Mike Middleton was 68 when he was appointed and had retired earlier that year after 30 years at the university. He had already been tapped by the Missouri Supreme court to be one of three co-chairs of the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Fairness in state courts.

A graduate of Mizzou's law school, Middleton worked as a trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and served as assistant deputy director of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

In the interview in September, he weighed in on the uproar from Republican lawmakers over the attempt by former communications professor Melissa Click to prevent a student journalist from interviewing protesters.

"I haven't heard much in the last several months … The legislature did end up giving us a four-point-something percent increase in our budget. … I think that's suggestive that the ill feelings that we were getting from that body have dissipated, and I have not heard anything from anyone else, so I would have to suggest to you that yeah, the ill feelings have diminished."

Curator Pam Henrickson agreed with Middleton. She said the leadership is looking forward: "It's a new day here, and we are looking to take the University of Missouri into its future."

Henrickson also said that the year-long vacancies for system president and Mizzou chancellor have not negatively affected long-term planning.  

"We have a very deep bench and we work to have a very deep bench, and we have people that are ready and willing to step up, like (interim) president Middleton, and help us out when we have issues … so we're going forward."

Interim chancellor Hank Foley, meanwhile, said he hopes to draw students back who either left or chose not to enroll because of the campus protests. "Mizzou is just a great experience, and I think a few students probably got turned off on the basis of some things that are not that important or big … the general experience at Mizzou, even last year, was pretty terrific."

When asked, he also said that efforts to persuade former students to return will also mean convincing their parents.

"For those parents who didn’t want their children to come here, and (for) the most part it was safety and the perception that their student might not be safe here, we've worked really hard to make it clear that safety is our number one campus priority…we're putting even more money into expanding the police force and making sure that it is as highly trained as any police force, frankly, in the state or maybe in the country."

Foley is hoping to be named Mizzou's permanent chancellor. That decision won’t be made until after Choi takes over as UM System president next year.

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.

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