COLUMBIA — As a University of Missouri curator, David Wasinger has sworn to uphold affirmative action laws in hiring and admissions at the system’s four campuses.
As a private attorney, Wasinger and a colleague are aiding the effort to persuade voters in 2008 to dismantle racial and gender preferences in public employment, contracting and education.
Opponents of the anti-affirmative action proposal, known as the Missouri Civil Rights Initiative, call Wasinger’s involvement a conflict of interest that also damages the university’s credibility.
“This is an initiative that can do harm to the university and its admissions policy,” said Jim Kottmeyer, a Democratic political activist. “Yet you’ve got a curator out there representing the group.”
Wasinger, who initially declined to comment Wednesday, later said those concerns are politically motivated by allies of state Attorney General Jay Nixon, a Democrat who plans to challenge Republican Gov. Matt Blunt next year.
Kottmeyer is a former executive director of the state Democratic Party. Jane Dueker, former chief legal counsel to Democratic Gov. Bob Holden, is one of three attorneys challenging the ballot initiative’s wording in Cole County Circuit Court on behalf of two Missouri residents.
Joining Dueker in that effort is Chuck Hatfield, treasurer of Nixon’s campaign committee and his former chief of staff.
Blunt appointed Wasinger to the Board of Curators in 2005 to fill a seat reserved for those who identified themselves as Democrats.
The curators’ conflict-of-interest policy prohibits members from voting or “attempting to influence the decision of the university” on any issues that would result in “material ... or personal financial gain.”
Under that standard, Wasinger’s dual duties would seem acceptable, barring a curator vote to support or oppose the ballot proposal.
But the perception of undue influence remains, said Gwen Grant, president of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City.
“If it’s not a conflict of interest, it certainly smells like one,” she said.
Tim Asher, executive director of the Missouri organization pushing the ballot measure, said Wasinger’s law firm was selected on the advice of the American Civil Rights Coalition, a Sacramento, Calif., group that has led successful efforts to overturn affirmative action laws in California, Washington and Michigan.
“It was a matter of finding someone in Missouri who was familiar with constitutional law,” said Asher, a former admissions director at North Central Missouri College.
Wasinger said his role in the case is secondary behind colleague James Cole of the Murphy Wasinger law firm.
While the names of both men appear on a July 26 court petition challenging the wording of the secretary of state’s proposed ballot summary, Wasinger said Cole is the lead attorney. The petition bears Cole’s signature, and Wasinger said his name is included because he directs the firm’s litigation.
However, Dueker said Wasinger has taken a more active role in the legal complaint by calling opposing attorneys to discuss the pair of lawsuits.
The July 30 petition filed by Dueker, Hatfield and Nicholas Frey complains that the proposed ballot summary omits mention of religion, disability and veteran status as other protected classes.
The complaint also charges State Auditor Susan Montee with approving an incomplete and inadequate summary of the proposal’s fiscal impact. Both challenges will likely be consolidated into a single case, Dueker said.
To get on the November 2008 ballot, supporters of the anti-affirmative action measure must collect roughly 150,000 signatures from registered voters in the state.
The Missouri battle is part of a larger fight that its backers, including former University of California regent Ward Connerly, are calling a “Super Tuesday for Equal Rights.” Ballot initiatives also are being organized in Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma and Nebraska.
In the University of Missouri system, high school students whose standardized test scores and class rankings do not qualify for automatic acceptance can be considered for admission by a special committee that considers a number of extenuating circumstances, including an applicant’s race.
On the flagship campus in Columbia, as many as 1,000 students — roughly 8 percent to 10 percent of applicants — undergo that “holistic review process” annually, admissions director Barbara Rupp told the Columbia Missourian. No more than 10 percent of the freshman class can gain entry through such exceptions.
As for Wasinger’s colleagues, three curators contacted by The Associated Press on Wednesday said they did not know enough about the proposed initiative, nor Wasinger’s role, to comment.
Wasinger demurred when asked if he supported the proposed initiative, responding that a hired attorney’s opinion is immaterial.
“We are simply advocates for our clients,” he said. “That’s what lawyers do.”
Wasinger suggested that his firm’s involvement is limited to the narrow legal questions surrounding the ballot language.
“The University of Missouri is not a party to this case, and will not be influenced regardless of the outcome of the litigation,” he said.