Officials at the University of Missouri System, and its flagship campus in Columbia, answered questions Wednesday about its strides in diversity, a controversial communications professor and a grim financial outlook.
The state’s Joint Committee on Education hosted a hearing specifically for the UM System and the University of Missouri, with interim system president Mike Middleton, Board of Curators chair Pam Henrickson and interim MU chancellor Hank Foley fielding questions. Representative David Wood, R-Versailles, wanted to focus the hearing on the future of the two bodies, after both met scrutiny and criticism in the wake of campus protests in Columbia.
The student group Concerned Student 1950 led the protests on Carnahan Quad in the fall, calling for the resignation of then-system president Tim Wolfe for a lack of action to their complaints of an unsafe learning environment for minority students. Wolfe stepped down from his position on November 9, with then-MU chancellor R. Bowen Loftin following suit the same day. The protest picked up national attention when several members of the MU football team boycotted activities until Wolfe stepped down, with then-head coach Gary Pinkel announcing his support the team.
Foley told the committee that while donations seemed to be on track to meet their $1.3 billion goal, student applicants for next semester continued to fall. He estimated the school would see 900 less applicants for next school year, which could result in a loss of $20 million for the university. Foley said he has met with the school’s deans frequently about an expected financial blow next year.
“Go over budgets, budget projections, think about how we would handle cuts in budget, whether it’s a cut in budget due to a governmental decision, or whether it’s a loss of revenue due to student applications being down or student matriculation being down,” Foley said.
The interim chancellor said he’s spoken with several parents, potential students and high school counselors to help assuage fears of “turmoil” after the November protests. He said MU works with a new communications team, and works with St. Louis-based PR firm FleishmanHillard for “crisis communications.”
Middleton said application numbers stayed “flat” at the Kansas City campus, and experienced slight declines at the Rolla and St. Louis schools.
Some lawmakers asked about the current job status of Dr. Melissa Click, the communications professor seen in Columbia body camera video cursing at police as they tried moving student protestors out of the street during the Homecoming parade. Click was also charged with third-degree assault by the Columbia city prosecutor for a recorded incident with a reporter on campus during the Nov. 9 protest on Carnahan Quad. Click told ABC 17 News she regretted using foul language during the Homecoming parade, but said she would fight for her job.
Senator Kurt Schaefer questioned Foley as to why he had not yet fired Dr. Click, calling the professor “unstable.” In a statement Sunday, Foley said he found Click’s behavior “appalling,” but told the Columbia senator Wednesday that no one had filed a formal complaint against her for him to take any action. Foley said he did put a “letter of admonition” in her personnel file, which the tenure review committee will see. Foley said previously that the school would deal with her employment through the tenure process, which Click is going through this year.
Schaefer questioned why the process to fire Click, whom the senator has long criticized since the Nov. 9 video, has taken so long, especially with the police body camera video now public.
“It is more cause than I have ever seen in an employment situation in my life of 20 years as a lawyer,” Schaefer said.
Henrickson told the committee that the system’s investigation was nearing completion. The Board of Curators put Click on paid suspension in January while conducting the investigation.
Senator Paul Wieland, R-Imperial, said he would be the first to file a formal complaint to the school against Click. The senator also criticized Pinkel’s actions that week, saying he “did discredit” the university, and would soon file a complaint against the former football coach.
Middleton addressed concerns from Rep. Courtney Curtis, D-Ferguson, that it was taking too long to implement changes to make the schools more inclusive. Middleton said he hoped to hire the system’s chief diversity officer “in the next two weeks,” and hire an outside firm to audit the system’s current diversity and inclusion programs.
Middleton said some of the demands given by Concerned Student 1950 would be unattainable, such as bringing the black faculty and staff level to 10-percent by the 2017-2018 school year Middleton also downplayed the rhetoric of “demands” to the committee when asked about the level of control administration had, and if the state government would have to do whatever the system said, saying they saw the list given more as “requests.”
“We are seriously considering those requests in order to satisfy the concerns of our students,” Middleton said, adding it is the system’s job to hear out its students.
Wood added that he hoped the chief diversity officer would be given power to make meaningful decisions, rather than serve in a new level of bureaucracy at the schools.
(Editor’s note, 2/18: This story has been updated with the results of the hearing.)