ST. LOUIS — During a meeting that featured a robust discussion on improving retention and graduation rates in the University of Missouri System, the UM Board of Curators elected its lone woman member to serve as next year’s chair.

Julia Brncic, who was appointed to the board by then-Gov. Eric Greitens in 2017 and is chair of the finance committee, won her colleagues’ unanimous approval. The senior vice president, chief counsel and corporate secretary for health services company Cigna, Brncic cited “affordability, enrollment and modernizing the delivery of education” as challenges all universities face during a press conference following the meeting.

During the daylong session on the University of Missouri-St. Louis campus, the curators focused largely on improving retention and graduation rates in the system — a response, in part, to U.S. News & World Report rankings that showed the UM's flagship Columbia campus dropping several places this year.

“We’re not just chasing statistics or metrics,” UM President Mun Choi said during an afternoon discussion on the subject. But Choi added that “each individual who comes to our universities who does not graduate represents a failure on our part and that we have the responsibility for their success.”

MU Provost Latha Ramchand said it was not enough for MU to do well compared to peers. “There is no other industry that I can think of where we say we’re happy with 60% of our customers” satisfied with the product provided, she said.

Solutions the UM System is beginning to implement include:

  • Using predictive analytics to identify students in need of intervention.
  • Improving financial aid, including emergency grants.
  • Improving and expanding advising.

Speakers throughout the day emphasized that improving retention would be a win-win for the university, bringing in increased revenue and improving U.S. News and World Report rankings.

But retention and graduation aren’t the only goals. Reducing the number of Pell Grant recipients (students the government deems to be in the greatest financial need) admitted might “optimize the graduation rate,” Choi said, but wouldn’t promote goals of “access and opportunity.”

That also means that U.S. News & World Report rankings aren’t the best indication of whether or not system universities are fulfilling their missions, Choi said.

By themselves, retention and graduation rates also don’t demonstrate how well a university is doing in relation to the projected outcomes for the demographics it serves, representatives of UMSL told the curators. While it doesn’t have the best retention rates, UMSL outperforms expectations and was recognized as a top-100 “social mobility” school by U.S. News and World Report, they noted.

During his report to the curators, Choi also discussed research at UM. Research productivity in the system has been stagnant while some other universities have doubled productivity, he said. He blamed the problem on the system, not the personnel. While faculty members are “outstanding,” UM facilities are lacking, he said.

“This is not about asking faculty members to work harder,” Choi added. “We need to enable them to work smarter.”

MU has seen an increase in research proposals over the past two years, Choi said. He noted that the MU campus has had 98 patents issued in past two years. He wants to see them marketed. “We don’t want our patents sitting on a shelf,” but rather want to actively promote them and shop them to entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, Choi said.

During the meeting, the curators also voted to accept significant changes to the system’s mission statement for the first time in 22 years (a slight change was made in 2003.) The new statement includes themes of excellence, leadership and “foundational values of academic freedom and freedom of expression,” Choi said.

UM curators also voted to:

  • Elect Curator Maurice Graham as vice chair of the board for 2020.
  • Approve paid leave for employees who donate organs (30 calendar days) or bone marrow (seven calendar days).
  • Approve housing and dining rates for the next fiscal year. MU rates will increase only slightly.

Avery Welker, student representative to the Board of Curators, told the curators that students are worried that graduate and professional assistantships will “change dramatically.” The Graduate Professional Council at MU is working with administrators to clarify plans for stipends, tuition waivers and health insurance under the new budget allocation model, he said.

During the press conference, Choi said he didn’t expect dramatic changes to assistantships. While the budget model is changing, “we have a focus on attracting the best graduate students” in various programs and “want to make sure that we incentivize departments to support graduate students,” he said.

  • Education reporter, fall 2019 Studying investigative journalism Reach me at mariabenevento@mail.missouri.edu or in the newsroom at 882-5700.

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