Blunt’s curators working against UM’s best interest

Saturday, October 13, 2007 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:53 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 4, 2008
Kennedy is a professor emeritus at the MU School of Journalism.

When you piece together the reports from that Board of Curators meeting Oct. 5, you get a troubling picture of political division at the very top of our university. You see conflict where there should be unanimity, partisanship where there should be support.

The issue, which shouldn’t have been an issue, was a resolution written by Interim President Gordon Lamb at the suggestion of Curator Bo Fraser of Columbia. The Columbia Daily Tribune reported that it calls for “academic freedom in teaching and research” and concludes, “The Board of Curators reaffirms its unwavering commitment to the principles of academic freedom and intellectual inquiry.”

The Missourian’s headline asserted “Curators support Lamb’s position on stem cell work.” Well, not exactly. Instead, according to reports in the two dailies and the campus newspaper, The Maneater, the university’s policymakers squabbled over not only the language and intent of the resolution but even the manner of its introduction. The Maneater quoted Curator David Wasinger as being angry that it was introduced as a surprise: “What disturbs me is that you guys are too embarrassed to put this on the agenda,” he said.

My guess is that the tactic didn’t result from embarrassment but from calculation of the forces now at work in the Blunt-dominated board. President Lamb and his supporters no doubt understand that Blunt appointees Wasinger, John Carnahan and Doug Russell didn’t like Lamb’s courageous statement supporting university researchers’ right to pursue stem cell research. They must have suspected that prior notice would have provided the opportunity for behind-the-scenes maneuvering to weaken or thwart the resolution. In the end, Curator Russell, acting more like the chairman of the state Republican Party, which he is, than the university advocate he should be, voted against the resolution. Curators Wasinger and Carnahan abstained.

Look at the language of the resolution, which never mentions any specific form of research or intellectual inquiry, and ask yourself how anyone qualified to be a curator could refuse to support it. Now ask whether there could possibly be any connection to Chancellor Brady Deaton’s report at that same meeting that some “major institution” is trying to raid some of our most productive researchers. Big money is being offered, he said.

The flagship campus is cannibalizing itself to the tune of $7 million in hopes of matching monetary inducements. But Faculty Council Chairman Frank Schmidt noted in a Maneater report that “Compete Missouri” has its own costs, in the form of fewer faculty. Prof. Schmidt also said what administrators whose jobs aren’t protected by tenure may be reluctant to say, “Political interference is political interference.”

Missourians have come to expect political interference in education from our legislators. Coming from within the board of curators, though, it’s more worrisome.

Call me an idealist, but I’ll argue that for most faculty members big money is really less important than that “unwavering commitment to the principles of academic freedom and intellectual inquiry.”

When the commitment wavers, we’re at risk of losing more than just a few scientists. The real risk is to the core values of the university.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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Ellis Smith October 14, 2007 | 8:22 a.m.

This would seem to be a very inefficient way to effect staff reductions at our so-called flagship campus. Do you really believe that Blunt (whom I thoroughly dislike) is responsible for all that campus' problems? If you do, there's a bridge connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn in New York I'd like to discuss your buying. [If my comments reek sarcasm, they are intended to do so.]

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