UM board president asked for challenge

James says money and tuition are among her chief concerns.
Sunday, January 4, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:24 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

KANSAS CITY— Mary James secured her seat on the University of Missouri’s Board of Curators in the simplest way possible: She asked to serve, and her wish was granted.

“I had always done public service work in my community — park board and athletic booster club. I’d always raised money here in town,” James said. “This is sort of an extension of all of that,” but it’s “the big time.”

James, 54, of Harrisonville, is entering her sixth and final year on the nine-member board and was chosen by her fellow curators last month to serve as president for 2004. She will wield the gavel for the first time at the curators’ meeting in Columbia on Jan. 27. She expects that the budget will once again shape the board’s work.

She knows it will be tough figuring out how to make do with less money and is concerned about angering students if curators approve another large tuition increase in March after this year’s almost 20 percent hike.

“I’m excited and apprehensive,” James said in an interview with The Kansas City Star. “I’m extremely honored to have the opportunity to serve. I hate to sound schmaltzy and say, ‘It’s a lifelong dream.’ But I can’t think of anything that is more important than that. I’m very excited because I think I’m prepared for it. But I’m apprehensive because it is a huge job.”

The all-volunteer board sets tuition, policies and regulations and hires the president of a system that has four campuses, a two-hospital health care entity, more than 60,000 students and a budget of nearly $2 billion.

But James said the work is worth it because of its mission, which she believes it performs very well: graduating accomplished, prepared young people who contribute to their workplaces and communities.

She was thrilled to hand her younger son his diploma when he graduated from the Columbia campus in 2000. She has already handed one niece her diploma as well, and she expects to do the same for another niece in May.

She is a 1971 graduate of MU. James taught for several years in Texas and Harrisonville, then spent 26 years as the human resources manager for Cass County Publishing Co., which her family used to own.

In 1997, James wrote to then-Gov. Mel Carnahan saying how proud she was that most of the top 10 students in her older son’s high school graduating class were attending the university. She also listed her many public service activities and offered her services to Carnahan if there was anything she could do for education in the state.

When a Carnahan aide called James a couple of weeks later and asked her how she wanted to help, she said she wanted to be a University of Missouri curator. She recalls now that the aide was speechless for several minutes, but Carnahan eventually vetted her background and appointed her to the board. She took her seat in 1999.

Today, James said, she feels helpless and frustrated in the face of the state’s higher education cutbacks. She said the curators’ vote last spring to raise undergraduate tuition 19.8 percent was the worst moment in her five years on the board.

The best moment was hiring Elson Floyd as system president in December 2002, she said, recounting some of his accomplishments to date: He handled a backlog of job grievances, settled a long-running lawsuit by The Kansas City Star to open internal university audits to public scrutiny, and introduced tuition discounts for employees’ dependents.

But Floyd also has garnered harsh criticism because of his family’s involvement with former University of Missouri-Columbia basketball player Ricky Clemons. Floyd’s wife was taped talking to Clemons when he was in jail after violating probation by being at a July 4 gathering at the Floyds’ home.

Floyd’s wife, who, like Floyd and Clemons, is black, advised Clemons to date girls from a black sorority, not a traditionally white sorority. Clemons had pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault on a white girlfriend.

James said the Floyds and university officials will have to work to rebuild credibility with some people in the state who found Carmento Floyd’s comments racist and offensive.

But several other issues also will warrant attention in the coming year, James said. She will be tracking the progress through the legislature of a $190 million bond issue sought by the university system for construction or renovation of scientific research facilities.

She also wants to look at how to retain good professors, some of whom are being wooed away by other universities promising higher salaries or better facilities and support.

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