UM President Forsee’s town hall meeting raises concerns about diversity

Wednesday, November 3, 2010 | 6:21 p.m. CDT; updated 7:34 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, November 3, 2010
UM System President Gary Forsee answers questions from the audience during an open Town Hall meeting on Nov. 3 in Jesse Hall Auditorium. Forsee addressed both the possible changes in the retirement plan that could affect future employees and the university’s fiscal challenges.

COLUMBIA — A lack of diversity in the UM System Board of Curators could prevent the system from receiving grants, said MU's director of development for foundation relations.

The concern arose during a town hall meeting with UM President Gary Forsee in Jesse Auditorium. Although he intended to discuss possible changes to employee benefits, Forsee said the meeting was more to engage with the attendees.

“Sometimes there is an agenda, an announcement to talk about, but that is not the case today,” Forsee told the audience.

After his introduction, he opened the floor for questions, but only a few in the room spoke up.

“Back row’s awfully quiet,” Forsee joked.

But then Elizabeth Cogswell, MU director of development for foundation relations, brought up the curators’ lack of diversity. The board, which serves as the UM System’s governing body, has nine members — eight men and one woman, Chairwoman Judith Haggard. All members are white.

Cogswell’s work involves interacting with private foundations, such as the Ford Foundation, that provide the university with money for research. The school also receives grants from federal organizations, such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

Certain types of grant proposals require information about an institution related to diversity, MU Chief Diversity Officer Roger Worthington said in an interview.

Worthington added the caveat that diversity is just one of many factors determining whether a university should receive grants, which amount “to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars every year.”

But that doesn’t diminish the importance of diversity, he said.

“Diversity as a whole is an issue when it comes to securing grants for research and other activities for the institution,” Worthington said. “Funding organizations and even accrediting bodies require that we meet certain standards in order to compete for funding and receive accreditation.”

The work produced through grant funding contributes to Missouri's overall economic growth, he said.

During the meeting, Forsee outlined university objectives based on a challenge from Gov. Jay Nixon, one of which was for UM to foster state economic development. That mission could be jeopardized if the university misses opportunities for receiving grants, Worthington said.

“If it’s difficult to attain those funds because of a lack of diversity, that has a negative impact on our ability to fulfill that economic development objective of the university,” he said.

As a possible solution, Cogswell suggested adding additional members to the board to increase diversity, but state law mandates that the board may only consist of one member for each congressional district. Additionally, it must balance opinions from the two major political parties, a requirement that Worthington said complicates the issue.

The terms for three of the board’s members will expire January 2011, opening a new opportunity for diversity. The question of who would fill those places is out of the UM System’s hands, though, as the governor is responsible for appointing new curators.

The UM System’s power doesn’t extend beyond offering suggestions and identifying qualities of an ideal candidate, Forsee said, but he assured the audience he would “personally be delivering this message to the governor within the next two weeks.”

“The board ought to reflect the diversity of our state and the diversity of our institution,” Forsee said. “The governor fully understands that and will be highly interested. But that ultimately is his responsibility."

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