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From money to quality to sexual assault, Mizzou chancellor juggles many issues

University of Missouri-Columbia

Updated 1:22 p.m., Sept. 16 with audio from "St. Louis on the Air" - R. Bowen Loftin found that a lot of things were the same when he moved from the top job at Texas A&M to become chancellor of the University of Missouri-Columbia last year, but he did have to make one big change.

Instead of greeting his Aggie crowd with a hearty “Howdy!” he learned to get a big response at Mizzou with three simple letters: “M-I-Z”.

The proper reply, of course, is “Z-O-U.”

Loftin said he feels right at home on the Mizzou campus after 18 months on the job. He told St. Louis Public Radio in a recent interview that one reason for his comfort level is how similarly students are treated both in Columbia and in College Station, where he worked for several years, leaving after four years as president.

“Texas A&M played Missouri at Columbia in November 2013,” he said. “At that point, I had been offered the position [at Mizzou]. I walked into the football stadium, Faurot Field at Columbia, and I saw something I didn't think I would see anywhere else but where I'd been before.

“Turns out that the University of Missouri — Mizzou — provides most of the prime seats on the east side of their stadium to students, which is exactly the way it was done where I came from at Texas A&M. That was a sign perhaps, that this place had some shared values, especially the value of students. Much like I had had at Texas A&M. So, I was quite taken by that.”

Loftin said 6,500 of those students, as well as 55,000 graduates, are from the St. Louis area, so the region has the largest single Mizzou alumni base in the nation.

Right before Loftin officially became chancellor, the Mizzou campus became the focus of a national story on a subject that has taken up much of his time and attention: sexual assault.

Sasha Menu Courey, a student at the Columbia campus had committed suicide in 2011. After her death, information emerged that Courey had said she was sexually assaulted more than a year before, possibly by one or more members of the Mizzou football team.

In the interview, Loftin discussed actions taken in the wake of the Courey story as well as other issues facing the university including affordability, access and quality at Mizzou and in higher education in general. His responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Listen to Dale's interview with Chancellor Loftin.

On sexual assault and Title IX

The Sasha Menu Courey story broke the weekend before I became chancellor officially. So, I was actually on campus, getting settled basically, and this thing happened. Steve Owens was serving as the interim chancellor, and he was on a hunting trip in a place with no cell coverage. So, there was kind of a void of leadership, shall we say, right there. President [Tim] Wolfe was engaged in that situation. He was concerned about it and made a decision that day moving the entire system to a better place in terms of how we addressed Title IX concerns.

We have done a lot in terms of training all of our employees, faculty and staff, to be reporters of any events they may see. We have produced what I think is one of the best websites in the country for Title IX reporting and accessing information. We've put in place a number of programs to both raise awareness and prepare our students to be better able to deal with those kinds of issues, especially reporting, intervention and, obviously, support after the fact. 

Are universities equipped to handle these kinds of cases?

I think we are better equipped today than we were. The last couple of years have been tough in higher education in this area. There's no doubt that many universities struggle to do this well. We are not typically placed in the role of being a prosecutor and a judge, which is part of what happens right now the way the laws and regulations are written. So this has been something that's been difficult for universities to move into. I think we've learned a lot in the last couple of years.

How do you change the culture on campus concerning sexual assault, before it can get to the reporting stage?

We are very interested in the Green Dot program. The green dot program is a program which really says, 'I'm not going to be an idle bystander. I'm going to watch, and if I see inappropriate behavior, I'm going to intervene.' That's not exactly human nature. Let's just walk on by. We don't necessarily stop and think, 'Should I now say something? Should I now try to stop something happening which I see happening, which is not appropriate?' That's not our tendency. So, we've really pushed hard on that. Our students have stepped up to it. We have a program that's called Enough is Enough that's totally student driven. It's a very grassroots approach, saying we're tired of this continuing on a college campus. Let's change the culture. I can't hire enough people as chancellor to enforce thing from a top-down perspective. This has to be solved by the students themselves. That's critical.

Some campuses have programs that outline step-by-step processes. Can we go beyond this step, can we go beyond this step, in intimate situations? Is Mizzou going to go that route?

We are very concerned about what yes and no means, like many campuses are. I believe we have a lot of training in place right now. We've mandated every student who entered this campus this year as a freshman go through a training program. They won't be able to get their registration completed until it's done. That's a big step for us. Never done before. So now we have everyone exposed to the same criteria, the same discussions about what their responsibilities are, what the processes are that are available to them to report and how they can access counseling, support and others kinds of things they may need if they have any issues of this type occur to them personally. 

R. Bowen Loftin, chancellor of the University of Missouri-Columbia
Credit University of Missouri-Columbia
R. Bowen Loftin, chancellor of the University of Missouri-Columbia

And I see that hard liquor is going to be banned from fraternity houses. Will that be a factor in these kinds of cases?

If you look at the last few years of sexual assault cases that have come into student conduct, almost all have involved alcohol abuse by both parties, both the victim and the perpetrator. So you draw your own conclusion about it. It is what it is. That's what you see. Alcohol plays a role. And underage drinking is especially a problem at any college campus. Mizzou is not free from that. We worked hard to teach people about the results of alcohol abuse. We also worked very hard to make sure we had the right people in place. As you may know, Missouri several years ago, through a budget reduction process, eliminated the plainclothes people who used to come into bars and check, make sure that IDs were inspected, things like that. That sort of meant there was nobody looking over anybody's shoulder. 

This is not a mandate from me, although I certainly encourage it. But to remove the hard liquor, especially things like vodka, which can be consumed in very large quantities without even knowing it, that has been a big deal. I think the IFC, the Interfraternity Council, has looked at this very carefully and they made a decision to come forward and tell the houses no more hard liquor in the houses. Beer and wine can be appropriately handled, but not liquor. And that, to me, is a big step forward, driven by the students themselves, not by me. 

Will it be enforced by the university?

We can't. I can't hire enough people. Also, at Mizzou, unlike at some schools, we don't own the property the houses are on. So literally, that's Columbia Police Department territory, quite frankly. And they'll tell you, they have a lot going on. This isn't their highest priority. And I can understand that. I believe the secret is going to be having maturity and responsibility in every house. Some houses have had a large number of freshmen in the house. You put a lot of 18-year-olds in there with nobody else, you can imagine what can happen. I've told all the houses I've gone to speak to, 'Look, I expect to see some senior leadership in the house. Own your house. Instill responsibility, both in yourselves as leaders of the organization but also in your freshmen.'

University officials talk about three factors in making sure the school is doing well: access, affordability and quality. How do these interact?

Access to me is a very important thing. Access has more than one dimension, though. Part of access is simply financial. Can you afford to go to school? Part of access is also intellectual. Do you have the right preparation to be successful? One of the worst things we can do is admit a student who can't make it, and that's a loss for us and a loss for them too. 

So we want to be sure students who come to Mizzou are able to complete their studies there. To retain them. I was very proud, for example, this fall that we saw our retention rate from the freshman to sophomore year increasing by a whole point, which is rare. That's a big change from year to year. This year we have 87.1 percent of our freshman from last year came back as sophomores. That's a new record for us.

The other part of it is, of course, financial, and that's really part of access in my mind. Access means I can afford to come to school and stay in school. If you ask a student why they don't come back in their second year, the first answer you get will be financial. It costs more than I thought it would, and I wasn't prepared for that. My parents weren't prepared for that. The number two reason is academic. They didn't do well in their first year. Number three reason is a variety of things like family issues and such that happens to anybody. That's a pretty small number. So you see right away that retention is tied really to money, it's tied also to academic success. So access to me is really the key.

When it comes to affordability, state support is weak. Is that a threat to quality?

I think it's a threat to students. This is not Missouri by itself. Every single state has gone through the same process over the last several years. We've seen nationwide a reduction of the per-student support given to universities by states over time. I don't think that will change. I don't believe we're going to see a turn-up for that overnight, if ever. I believe we have to understand the new reality is that higher education affordability is going to be tied to other things. The state support is vital to us. It helps us keep the cost under control. But it's not going to be the salvation or the future for our universities.

"I think Mizzou has not been as aggressive as it could be and as it should be in terms of telling people how good it really is." -- Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin

The major piece of this really has been for the last few decades philanthropy. The private schools like WashU have done it a long time. Privates came to that conclusion early in their lives. They have to support themselves by going out and getting donors to provide funding. Publics, because they had great state support for a long time, didn't worry about that a whole lot. Now they do.  And so where I've been the last decade, my time is spent — more than half of it — spent on fund-raising. That's what we do. 

At Mizzou we think we have a fourth possibility. We have an extraordinarily creative faculty and student population. We believe that the ideas they come up with, the discoveries they make, oftentimes can have potential in terms of commercial success. So our goal is to be able to support entrepreneurial activities on the part of our faculty and students, that allow us to have the ability to draw money from that over time as well.

That’s modern alchemy, turning ideas into money.

I think we have to. There is no other way to make it happen. Philanthropy is very, very successful, at Mizzou and other places. Much of it's not immediate money. I may get a million dollars from you in your will. When are you going to die, sir? That may be a long time from now. So that's the challenge you have. You may have very generous people. Your alumni, who will be willing to put you in their will. That's fine. We love that. But you can't predict that.

Is it difficult to get out the message we have a fine university and at the same time we need more money?

I believe we have to be very clear that we have a fine university. We haven't been clear enough about that for a long time. I think Mizzou has not been as aggressive as it could be and as it should be in terms of telling people how good it really is. But I think we have to understand there is a reality I have already talked about. A reality about tuition, which can't be raised forever, and state support, which will not get larger in my opinion over a long period of time. That reality is out there: How are you going to keep what you have, and even go beyond that?  We want to be excellent. We want to be better tomorrow than we are today. To be able to better tomorrow than today will take resources, and that's my story to a donor.

What attracts St. Louis area students to Columbia, when there is a University of Missouri campus also located in St. Louis?

People want to be on a campus which has all the pieces. I think UMSL is a fine school. It has a lot of good attributes to it, and a lot of good programs. But it's largely a commuter campus. We're residential. And so between the housing on campus, the nearby housing for students near campus, people can walk to class. They can walk around. They don't have to drive necessarily. That's helpful. They see a college campus, which is beautiful.

This is the flagship university in the state of Missouri. [People say], 'my mom and dad went there, I want to go there. My grandparents went there, I want to go there.' I have children coming to the campus now who are seventh generation Mizzou grads. Think about that. Their parents, grandparents and so on back to seven generations have been students there. We have that kind of a reach here in St. Louis. 

Follow Dale Singer on Twitter: @dalesinger

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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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