The UM System Board of Curators is considering combining the positions of system president and MU chancellor, a move that would significantly affect the system’s governing structure and priorities.

The board looked at six potential models for restructuring in its meeting Friday, four of which included the consolidation of the system president and MU chancellor roles. Some of the models also included significant consolidations, and two of them would see a fully integrated system centered around the MU campus, also referred to as a “flagship model.”

Conversations around the matter had been happening for some time, several curators said during the meeting, but the topic has escalated as COVID-19 and other circumstances have created a dire financial situation, forcing UM and other universities to consider significant changes.

The board is expected to vote on the decision during its meeting July 28, chair Julia Brncic said.

Choi’s significant power

The four models would remove the interim designation from Mun Choi as MU chancellor. They would unite that position and his permanent role as UM System president “more or less permanently,” said Terry MacTaggart, a senior consultant at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, who presented the models to the board Friday.

Those models, called models C, D, E and F, all see varying levels of consolidation within the university, according to the presentation.

  • Model C combines Choi’s positions but limits other consolidations throughout the system.
  • Model D combines Choi’s positions and also makes “substantial consolidations” throughout the system.
  • Models E and F overhaul the system’s structure significantly, with overall administrative structure bleeding into individual campuses’ leadership.
  • In model F, chancellors would be given new titles as “system vice presidents.”

Other universities use a similar power structure with a combined chief executive heading the system and the main campus, including the South Carolina, Hawaii, Houston and Minnesota systems, according to Rich Novak, another senior consultant at the association of governing boards.

Models A and B would keep the present structure, in which a UM System president oversees chancellors on all four campuses, though model B would see substantial consolidations throughout the system.

Models C through F, if implemented, would give Choi unprecedented power within the system, directly overseeing the flagship campus and supervising the other three.

He has been UM System president since March 2017 and interim MU chancellor since March of this year, when former Chancellor Alexander Cartwright left for the University of Central Florida.

Concerns going forward

Several university leaders said they are concerned about changing the structure not because of Choi’s abilities but because of a future person in that role.

“Let’s not make decisions based on Mun,” said C. Mauli Agrawal, chancellor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Curator Darryl Chatman also emphasized the need to make changes based on the system’s circumstances rather than “Choi’s ability.”

“We’re making this decision for future presidents as well,” Chatman said.

MacTaggart and Novak outlined the pros and cons of the choice to consolidate. Although Choi has broad support from administrators across campuses, they said, future presidents may struggle with a position that has so many responsibilities.

Choi is facing criticism from MU students, however, after he and the board decided recently to keep a bronze sculpture of Thomas Jefferson on campus after student requests to remove it.

Consolidating the positions also removes the “historic balance of power” within the system, Novak said, as the MU chancellor directly controls the Columbia campus’ operations while the president provides oversight.

However, consolidation would also eliminate the potential for “structural conflicts” between those two positions.

“I have been told that (conflict) has been a problem before with the system we have been under,” said Curator Greg Hoberock, though he didn’t specify between which individuals that conflict took place.

MacTaggart and Novak suggested several structures that could provide relief to the top position, including a chief operating officer for either the system or for the MU campus that would handle the burden of administrative duties.

Unequal campuses

Such restructuring, while aimed at saving money and providing more straightforward leadership, could also weaken the stature of the system’s other three campuses in St. Louis, Kansas City and Rolla. Several university leaders addressed that.

“I don’t know whether the solution is consolidating the two positions or remaining separate,” said Mohammad Dehghani, chancellor of the Missouri University of Science & Technology. “We have alums that for 100-plus years have had this notion that we are not viewed equally or viewed well. They hesitate. ‘I’d like to write a check to Missouri S&T and not the UM System,’ they say.”

Curator David Steelman affirmed that sentiment, saying that “we have major donors who think S&T would be better off if the system didn’t exist.”

University of Missouri-St. Louis Chancellor Kristin Sobolik emphasized that all four campuses are unique and would not necessarily benefit from a flagship or fully integrated model.

“Diversity is a strength,” she said.

The potential restructuring comes with a host of issues surrounding implementation, the consultants repeatedly emphasized, including potential confusion, transition costs and the realities of Missouri’s political situation. Steelman said it was “probably wise” to consult with political figures prior to any decision-making.

Despite those issues, the restructuring comes at a time of unprecedented financial problems, MacTaggart said. He said it was “a credit to this board” that they were “stepping out on these issues.”

“Do you think you’re honestly recognizing the immensity of the financial problems on your doorstep and the need to address it?” he said. “This is not business as usual, and it ain’t going to go back to normal anytime soon.”

For more COVID-19 related news, see our section dedicated to COVID-19 updates.
  • Galen Bacharier is a former assistant city editor and reporter at the Missourian. He covered higher education, state government and breaking news.

  • Elizabeth Brixey is the Columbia Missourian's education editor and an associate professor in the Missouri School of Journalism. She can be reached at (573) 882-2632 and brixeye@missouri.edu.

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