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Did events on Mizzou’s campus in 2015 hurt the UM System’s reputation?

Zora Mulligan, Missouri's Commissioner for Higher Education, has been in the position since August.
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Zora Mulligan, Missouri's Commissioner for Higher Education, has been in the position since August.

Zora Mulligan has been on the job as Missouri’s Commissioner of Higher Education for less than four months. But before she stepped into those shoes, she served as the University of Missouri System’s Chief of Staff during the 2015-2016 protests at Mizzou, which grasped the attention of the entire nation.

Did such exposure hurt the UM System as a whole?

“The system certainly was the subject of national conversation,” Mulligan told St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and St. Louis Public Radio reporter Dale Singer on Tuesday. “Whether its reputation suffered? That depends on your perspective. It created an opportunity for the institution to be a real leader to create opportunities on campus where everyone can succeed. Each campus has taken positive steps in terms of making each campus more welcoming. It was a significant event and a major trauma. It will take a while to recover from that.”

Mulligan lauded the choice of Mun Choi as the UM System’s new president in response to those protests — citing his experience in Connecticut working on diversity and inclusivity measures.

She also said that the she has been working hard to repair relationships between institutions of higher education and Missouri’s legislators. After last year’s events, legislators called for cuts to Mizzou’s budget. One proposal in particular threatened to cut funding for the university down to one dollar.

Ultimately, funding for the University of Missouri actually increased.

Mulligan said that legislators have high expectations in terms of graduation rates and workforce prep, but that the experience of last year’s up and down relationship between legislators and funding for higher education would take a while to get over.

"I think it is a situation where you fight most with the ones you love the most." - Zora Mulligan, on higher education's relationship with Missouri legislators

“There have been positive signs in the past few months about that relationship,” Mulligan said. “Speaker of the House Todd Richardson was in Columbia at the Missouri Chamber a few weeks ago and reassured members of that community that the university wouldn’t be punished in terms of budget decisions. I think it is a situation where you fight most with the ones you love the most. People in the General Assembly have tremendous affection for and respect for our institutions of higher education and I think it is the depth of that which led to our issues last year.”

On Tuesday’s program, Mulligan discussed other challenges she’s been working through during her first few months on the job—not the least of which is a forthcoming change in state and national administration.

“It has been a grounding and hot-foot experience in my first few months,” she said.

A few highlights from the conversation:

On tuition costs…

“I wouldn’t say [tuition cost] is out of control,” Mulligan said. “I know it is a significant expense for families or students who are paying their own way. Missouri has done an exemplary job on the national level of keeping our costs down: our cost has increased more slowly than any other state over the last five years. That has been a real benefit to our families.”

On the relationship between the national Department of Education and higher education…

Mulligan said that President Obama’s administration had an active role in shaping the priority of higher education in the country, particularly in the area of a “completion” agenda. Before his administration, higher education institutions’ point of pride was enrollment, Mulligan said. During his administration, that shifted much more to student success and completion of programs.

What might that look like in the Trump administration?

“Like everybody, I’m waiting to hear the details,” Mulligan said.

On faculty unionization…

“At UMSL, faculty members expressed interest in organizing,” Mulligan said. “At the University of Missouri-Columbia, that interest is with graduate students. Faculty have a variety of ways to make opinions known — at all UM campuses, there is a strong faculty senate or council … not a union but a strong voice for faculty.”

On concerns over a Missouri budget shortfall this year…

“It is hard not read headlines about the potential of significant mid-year withholdings and not be concerned about my own organization and organizations with which I work,” Mulligan said. “Those mid-year withholdings have a huge effect on institutions. Higher education is often one of the places that budget makers look to balance the budget. When there is a shortfall in revenue, higher education bears the brunt of it. That affects the ability to invest in full-time faculty, ability to provide student support…it impacts the institutions at its core.”

On the possibility of closing a campus to reduce budget issues…

“I’m a person who generally believes it is unlikely we’re going to close any public institutions in Missouri unless the leaders of a couple of institutions sit down together and decide together, with the support of the department, that it might be the right course.

“People often say Missouri has too many college and universities. It does have very many colleges and universities — especially if you look at an area like St. Louis, which is so rich in independent institutions, but each of those serves a particular kind of student or a particular kind of program. In rural areas, you have a different situation. The university is the lifeblood and the towns and regions they’re the center of would really struggle more deeply than they already are. Closure of institutions is an unlikely alternative, but you can never say never.”

Listen as Mulligan discusses Missouri’s “coordinated plan,” concealed carry on higher education campuses, and working with DESE on transitioning K-12 students to higher education settings here:

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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