Lack of strong, decisive leadership largely caused MU's public perception problems during and after the fall 2015 protests, UM System Curator David Steelman said Tuesday. But that won't be the case going forward.
"No one wanted to stand up and say 'This is why Bowen Loftin resigned, this is why the president resigned, and by the way, the University of Missouri is not a racist campus,'" Steelman said at a forum hosted by the Show-Me Institute. "I looked through press clippings, and at no time did I find any leader of the university make the simple, declaratory statement, 'This is not a racist institution.'"
As a result, the UM System Board of Curators will be more directly involved in unifying and overseeing the four system campuses, Steelman said.
"The board is going to have to step in, and it’ll be very controversial," he said. "There's people who aren't going to like these decisions being made, but I don’t see how the University of Missouri goes on to greatness until it starts becoming the University of Missouri with four campuses and not a University of Missouri System that is a back-office operation with four independent contractors."
"The buck stops here, and decisions have to be made," he said about system leadership.
Steelman, a graduate of MU and the MU School of Law, was appointed to the board in 2014 for six years. He served as the minority leader in the Missouri House of Representatives from 1981 to 1985. He spoke for an hour at the Show-Me Institute's event at the Country Club of Missouri about the lasting effects of the protests. The Show-Me Institute is St. Louis businessman Rex Sinquefield's think tank dedicated to free markets and individual liberty.
Two main narratives about the protests have emerged — and neither is true, Steelman said. The first comes from liberals who say MU is racist and not "enlightened enough." The second comes from right-wing sources who say campus leadership "let the inmates run the asylum" and social justice advocates are "godless heathens trying to deconstruct Western civilization."
Another misconception, in Steelman's view, is that Missouri Tigers' strike was the deciding factor in the resignations of UM System President Tim Wolfe and MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin.
"ESPN had a 30-minute presentation on how the football team was groundbreaking, and that affected the entire university," Steelman said. "I can tell you — I was in those meetings — when I found out the football team was protesting, I never gave it a second thought. I didn’t even think about it, nor did any other curator ever even mention it to me. From my perspective it was very clear: They were either going to play the football game or the coach wouldn’t have a job."
Neither did the curators push out Wolfe or Loftin, Steelman said.
"The decision to step down by Bowen Loftin had nothing to do with the protests at that time," Steelman added. "It was a product of a letter written by the deans, which I think was a very unfortunate failure of leadership on the deans’ part to get involved at that time."
The November 2015 letter to which he referred came from nine MU deans to Wolfe and the curators, saying Loftin had created a "toxic environment through threat, fear and intimidation."
Steelman said he and other curators were surprised when Wolfe announced his resignation.
"I think he was ill-suited to be president of a university," Steelman said. "I don't think Tim Wolfe was a good president, but that doesn’t mean he was a bad guy."
On the other hand, Steelman said, "Mun Choi is going to be a transformational leader in education. I don’t think you will find with Dr. Choi any hesitancy to speak up and defend the institution when there are false charges."
Choi has been working hard to repair relationships with the legislature, Steelman said. On Tuesday, the UM System announced it will not continue a search for a new governmental relations director; Choi, the chancellors and hired contractors will manage those responsibilities.
Although some think otherwise, Steelman said, the Missouri legislature does not hate MU — they love MU — but the events of fall 2015 "slapped them in the face."
Steelman bemoaned Missouri's Higher Education Student Funding Act, passed in 2007, which caps tuition increases to the rate of inflation. This law decreases flexibility for schools, Steelman said, and doesn't allow them to institute much-needed differential tuition, where certain programs are more expensive than others.
"It costs a lot more to educate an engineer," Steelman said, compared with sociology or humanities. "The labs cost more, the professors cost more. Or the business school — it costs more money to run a business school."
As a result of tuition being too low, over the past 10 years or so MU focused more and more on recruiting out-of-state students who would pay a higher tuition, Steelman said, to the exclusion of Missouri students.
"Gradually, over time, we’ve lost our connection to much of Missouri," Steelman said.
From there, parents started feeling less of a connection to MU and then legislators did, Steelman said, putting MU in a tenuous position when the protests happened. Now, with over $1.5 million dedicated to public relations giant Edelman and branding agency 160/90, the system is investing in communications to reconnect with its home state.
The UM System hopes that by rekindling its relationship with Missourians, it can increase enrollment and mend fences with lawmakers.
"We're going to have a big test coming up," Steelman said.
With an ongoing program review at each of the four campuses seeking areas where additional cuts can be made, Steelman emphasized there are some difficult decisions to be made in the near future, and the curators will work from a position of activism and strength. Some faculty may even accuse curators of micromanaging, he said.
"We have a multiplicity of programs we need to eliminate," he said. "We cannot be everything to everybody."
"The budget shortfall was $60 million, we cut $100 million — and there’s more to be cut," he warned.
The extra money that will be cut, he said, will be reallocated to key system priorities, such as increased faculty pay, student financial aid or specific projects. System leadership will identify successful programs at the four campuses and will allocate funding accordingly, Steelman said, which will force programs to improve by competing against one another for funding.
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.