Nixon picks St. Louis attorney for vacant UM System curator's seat

Wednesday, March 11, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY – Gov. Jay Nixon has picked MU's first homecoming king to fill one of three vacant seats on the UM System Board of Curators.

St. Louis attorney Don Downing formerly served as Nixon's chief deputy attorney general in the attorney general's office. His law firm, Gray, Ritter, and Graham P.C., also contributed $100,000 to Nixon's gubernatorial campaign in 2008.

The newly appointed curator received his bachelor's degree from MU in 1979 before earning a law degree three years later.

As an MU alumnus and father of an MU student, Downing said, he understands the significance of state universities.

"I think it's important that all citizens of Missouri realize how important the University of Missouri is," Downing said.

If his nomination is approved by the Missouri Senate, Downing will replace Marion Cairns.

The board acts as the UM System's governing body and is made up of one member from each of Missouri's nine congressional districts. Members serve six-year terms, with three members replaced by the governor every two years.

Although Downing said he does not have a pre-set agenda of what he wants to accomplish, he hopes to help the board with current funding difficulties.

Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, said he thinks Downing would make a difference in that regard.

"He understands both the state of Missouri, government and higher education," he said. "He'll be a real strong advocate for the university."

Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, who worked with Downing at the attorney general's office, said he thinks Downing is a fine lawyer, but he also raised concerns over a lack of diversity on the board.

"I think you have to have at least some curators who understand the issues that face minorities at the university, and some of the issues that arise in funding," he said. " ... And when you simply don't have any minorities, you're no longer reflecting the makeup of the state of Missouri."

Nixon communications director Jack Cardetti said the governor believes state government and universities should include minorities, but that Downing was the best fit for the position.

"Don really sees the governor's same vision as putting the students first at the university, but also believes that the university could be a part of the state's economic turnaround," he said.

Cheryl Walker, who is black, is also leaving the board. As is Don Walsworth, who is white.

Jennifer Hollingshead, MU's assistant director of communications, said the university had no comment on the appointment because Downing has not yet gone through the confirmation process.


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