Fifteen MU School of Journalism faculty members issued a letter Monday criticizing recent actions by UM System President and MU Chancellor Mun Choi that they believe discouraged dissent.

The letter warned of a possible "chilling effect" on the journalism program and free speech at MU.

The letter comes days after Choi drew criticism by blocking MU students on his personal Twitter account, several of whom had been critical of the university's public health and safety measures this fall. Choi unblocked the students after he came under scrutiny on social media and an MU alumnus threatened legal action.

"As the university confronts unprecedented financial challenges, and the likelihood of further layoffs and belt-tightening, an implied intolerance of dissent looms as a very real threat," they wrote. "Already, a few colleagues and students have confided that they fear speaking out will put their jobs or scholarships at risk."

The letter cites Choi's comments in a July interview with the Columbia Daily Tribune, in which he told senior MU leaders to fall in line with decision-making and criticized two journalism instructors for speaking out on social media.

Of the letter's 15 signees, eight are on MU's tenure track and seven are on the non-tenure track, according to Associate Professor Ryan Thomas, who organized the efforts behind the letter at the request of some colleagues. It was written following a Friday faculty meeting, in which a response to recent events was suggested, Thomas said. He emphasized that "the signatories only speak for the signatories," and any faculty member's absence should not be taken "to assume agreement or disagreement."

Fifty-nine faculty members belong to the MU School of Journalism.

Some MU journalism faculty members hold dual roles within the program, both instructing traditional classes and holding roles as editors, producers and news directors at the school's editorially independent outlets. Those outlets include the Missourian, KOMU/NBC and KBIA/91.3 FM.

"A number of our colleagues work in our community newsrooms, which cover the university," the letter states. "Some may have withheld signatures to avoid the perception of a conflict of interest."

In a July meeting of MU's Faculty Council, members challenged Choi's comments on dissent, expressing concern that a culture of "fear and intimidation" was cropping up among faculty and staff.

In a July 23 column in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Choi said he was dedicated to preserving free speech at MU and that it was not his intent to silence voices.

The letter's signees called for Choi to move forward with transparency and empathy, including on social media, as MU confronts the pandemic's challenges.

"(Leaders) should seize the opportunity to create a teaching moment by modeling responsive governance, open communication and empathy with students whose lives and routines have been profoundly disrupted," the letter read.

MU spokesperson Christian Basi declined comment on behalf of Choi.

  • Galen Bacharier is an assistant city editor at the Missourian. He has reported on higher education, state government and breaking news. Reach him at galenbacharier@gmail.com or on Twitter @galenbacharier.

  • 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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