When Sen. Kurt Schaefer ventured into electoral politics, the Columbia Republican promised to be a zealous advocate for his hometown university.
Moments after finishing off his victory celebration in 2008 over state Sen. Chuck Graham, Schaefer told this reporter about how he would champion higher education funding in the midst of a national economic collapse. After all, he said, "an investment in the University of Missouri is not just an investment for Columbia — it is an investment for the state."
Flash forward to the present day: After a string of high-profile controversies within the University of Missouri System, Schaefer is taking a much sterner tone.
While emphasizing that he’s helped boost funding for his alma mater and other higher education institutions for the past seven years, the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee said the legislature has every right to be skeptical of the University of Missouri-Columbia right now.
“I’ve been very supportive. I’m an alum. No one is more supportive of the university than I,” Schaefer said earlier this month. “But as I told a group that I addressed the other day in Columbia, there’s a difference between being a supporter and being an enabler. And while I am a supporter, there are many in the General Assembly who believe, like me, that whether it’s the University of Missouri or Social Services or the Department of Revenue, we’re not going to be enablers of a lack of transparency and accountability."
Indeed, Schaefer isn’t alone in being fiercely critical of how the University of Missouri-Columbia and the University of Missouri System have acted in recent months. (Full disclosure: St. Louis Public Radio reporters are employees of the University of Missouri-St. Louis and, therefore, the four-campus UM system.)
Many lawmakers were upset with how administrators handled protests over race relations at Mizzou last fall. Others have been perturbed with how MU handled its link with Planned Parenthood's Columbia branch. And it’s evident from former UM system President Tim Wolfe's tart letter (which included some striking accusations against Schaefer) that lawmakers haven’t exactly seen eye-to-eye with the university system’s administrators recently.
“I don’t think it’s one or the other. It’s just a lot of issues,” said Sen. David Pearce, a Warrensburg Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee. “And you know, it just seems like every day there’s something else that comes out. Can’t we get a break? Let’s just focus on educating students and having a good outcome from that.”
Then there’s Melissa Click. The communications professor drew nationwide criticism and scrutiny for calling for some “muscle” to eject a student reporter from one of Mizzou's public commons. Roughly 100 lawmakers signed a letter calling for her ouster from the university — including Schaefer and Pearce. (Click, by the way, embarked on a mini-media blitz recently to revive her reputation. But that effort may have taken a hit this weekend after a video of her brusquely conversing with Columbia police officers was released.)
"That’s one that people are going to follow," said Pearce, referring to Click's controversy. "It’s very identifiable. It’s very personal. It’s very passionate. That is going to be one issue that will draw a lot of criticism if she’s still allowed to stay at the university."
Targeting the purse strings
The big question going forward is whether the University of Missouri-Columbia's turmoil and discord will lead to the legislature slashing the UM system's budget.
Already, a House committee cut out budgetary increase to the University of Missouri system. And Senate Minority Leader Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis, said in January that the system’s campuses could receive a wholesale cut in funding.
Schaefer — who will have a big say in how much money the university system ultimately gets —said that administrators better bring their A-game as the budget process moves forward.
“As I’ve told the university over and over, it’s incumbent on them to show that they are being responsible with the money they get and make sure that’s something that everybody understands,” Schaefer said. “I think they’re in the process of doing that. They’ve been at the Capitol the last two weeks — both [University of Missouri system President] Mike Middleton and [University of Missouri-Columbia Chancellor] Hank Foley. Hopefully they’re able to really demonstrate that they are in charge of what is given to them by the taxpayers from the state of Missouri.”
He added that “not only is there competition among Missouri’s 13 four-year universities, which are all competing with one another for state dollars,” but there’s also a demand from health-care and mental-health advocates for general revenue dollars that go to higher education institutions.
“And you certainly have lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats from around the state, for whom the University of Missouri is not their top priority,” Schaefer said. “And while generally as a delegation, both Republicans and Democrats from mid-Missouri, we are supportive of the university, but again I don’t think we see our role as enablers. We see our role as supporters. And first and foremost as the gatekeepers for accountability on taxpayer dollars. So we’re going to do that.”
Pearce, though, isn’t sure the university system “will be a major reduction in funding.” It is possible, though, that certain line items that benefit the university system could be heavily scrutinized.
Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, said GOP lawmakers may be "backing off from some of that tough talk,” adding she wouldn’t be surprised if Schaefer played a role in restoring any potential higher education cuts. “Because at the end of the day, what we know happens is these cuts hurt students. And I don’t think that either [Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard] or Sen. Schaefer wants to be accountable for what may be an issue of hurting the ability of students to access to a quality higher education that they need.”
Missing the point?
Back to Click for a moment: That video that was released this weekend sparked an angry reaction from Chancellor Foley, who said in a statement that Click's "conduct and behavior are appalling."
But she appeared to have touched a nerve again with comments to the Columbia Daily Tribune regarding the pretty well-established racial divide on campus. She told the CDT's Rudi Keller that she hasn't heard lawmakers "articulate concern about the issues that black students have raised about feeling unsafe on campus or feeling excluded from the campus community."
In a statement released on Sunday night, state Rep. Robert Cornejo, R-St. Peters, said Click can "continue to make baseless accusations like this, which continue to harm the public image of our flagship university, or she can do the right thing, accept responsibility for her actions, save the University of Missouri System further embarrassment, and resign her current position at the university.
"As a minority alum of the University of Missouri, I am offended by her statement that she feels there 'is legitimacy to the argument' that she is being individually targeted by lawmakers who are channeling white resentment about the outcome of recent protests to a target safe from charges of racism," Cornejo said. "That is patently untrue."
Before the second video was released, Schupp emphasized that Click’s actions against student journalist Mark Schierbecker were inexcusable and wrong. But she questioned whether the intense focus on Click's job security distracts from difficult conversations about race at Mizzou.
“I think it’s misplaced when over 100 legislators send in a letter asking for her dismissal,” Schupp said. “I think that what it does is it removes our sight from the real concern on campus about whether students of color or whether minority students are being treated in the same way as their majority white counterparts.
“And Concerned Student 1950 is a movement that I think we need to start paying attention to,” she added. “And we need to ask the university, ‘What are you going to put in place? What are you going to make sure that all students who attend that university actually get the quality education that they deserve and what they came there for?'”
For his part, Pearce said, “The very fact that students feel uncomfortable or feel that there are racist tendencies or racist attitudes means that there’s something there.” He added that “I don’t think you can just dismiss that or tell people to ignore it or to be tough.
“I don’t think anyone thinks that you should tolerate an attitude of racism or that students should be uncomfortable,” Pearce said. “To me, the fact that African-Americans that are looking at getting a higher education, are looking at the University of Missouri as a key to their future — I think that’s great. And we should promote that and try to encourage that as much as we possibly can. And the fact that students might not feel comfortable or feel threatened, I think that’s a problem. And so how do you go about doing that though?
“I think that the one thing that I hear a lot when I go out in my district is ‘Who’s in charge?’” he added. “Can you let students run the institution? Can protests and things like that be the norm in running the institution? Because once you go down that road, how do you stop that?”
Schaefer said protests at other universities didn’t reach the level of “implosion” that occurred at MU. He added that “when you’ve got a large group of students saying ‘this thing’s out of balance,’ it is the job of the administration to look at that.”
“I was at the University of Missouri in the '80s, when students were protesting apartheid and the university’s investment in entities that had money in South Africa. That went on for a long time. There was a shantytown on campus,” Schaefer said. “Ultimately, those students were successful. And it worked. But you don’t have to commit third-degree assault. I didn’t see anyone during the apartheid protests of the 1980s shoving students on campus.
“And don’t even associate what Melissa Click did, in one of the most frankly egregious things I’ve ever seen a faculty member do, with somehow that was necessary as part of a student protest,” he added. “Because I don’t believe that it was.”
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics. You can follow Jason Rosenbaum on Twitter by going to @jrosenbaum.