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Choi says job is ‘one of the best in academia’

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – University of Missouri System president, Dr. Mun Choi, joined host Scott Faughn on This Week in Missouri Politics to discuss his commitment to the school. The University, which faced criticism from both anti-racist protestors and free speech advocates, has seen a decline in student enrollment by more than 35 percent at the Columbia campus over the past two years. On the show, Faughn referred to Choi’s position as “one of the toughest jobs in academics,” but Choi disagreed.

“You mentioned that this may be the hardest jobs in academia, but I think it’s one of the best jobs in academia. [It provides] an opportunity for us to work closely with all of our stakeholders – especially Missouri citizens – to improve our educational opportunities for students… and faculty members to pursue breakthrough research that makes an impact in the market place or to society.”

Since the protests in the fall of 2015, Mizzou has made some actions to improve not only the university’s image, but how the school functions. President Tim Wolfe stepped down at the end of 2015. Professor Melissa Click – who wanted “some muscle” to prevent a student reporter from documenting the protest –  was fired the following February. In March 2016, Kevin McDonald was hired as the school’s first chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer. In July of 2017, spokesman Christian Basi told the New York Times that the school has been creating a marketing campaign to correct “misperceptions” about the student-led protests.

At the same time, following the unrest, the school has been suffering. Not only are student enrollments down, but in the most recent records show that enrollments from black students have dropped almost double the rate of white students. The school has lost some of its projected state funding due to budget cuts. The school has also lost some of its projected tuition money from student enrollments and seven dormitories are temporarily shut down. In the past 5 years, Mizzou has lost approximately 10% of it’s tenured/tenured track faculty.

Yet, on the show, Choi was optimistic. Faughn asked if the University was capable of handling another anti-racism protest and Choi replied, “We are in a good position to be able to address some of the issues that were faced by the University of Virginia [in Charlottesville]… I believe very strongly that the University [of Missouri] must embrace diversity of experience, backgrounds, and perspectives… But I’m also very concerned about safety of our students and faculty members. Appropriate measures will be taken to address that balance between free speech – free expression – but also create an inclusive environment where people are made to feel safe.”

Choi’s strategy to mend some of the frayed tensions from racial injustices and questions of First Amendment issues is not to pick a side, but to find the middle ground. On the show, he mentioned a resolution for a statement of free expression passed by faculty members, which features “limitations on that freedom [which] are necessary to the functioning of the University[. The] University fully respects and supports the freedom of all members of the academy ‘to discuss any problem that presents itself.’”

The limitations allow the University to “restrict expression that violates the law, falsely defames a specific individual, constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University.”

For Choi, he feels these policies can help the University and its students meet their goals at the institution. Some of his top priorities are to the Board, the faculty, the students, as well as the taxpayers. He says that 20 percent of his students are Pell Grant recipients, a federal financial aid program. By giving Mizzou students every opportunity to succeed, he hopes that it will be the most efficient use of the taxpayers’ money.

“The mission of the University is to pursue student success, researching creative works, and engagement especially with the citizens of Missouri. In that regard, [the Board] want to do whatever is possible so that we can actually achieve those objectives with the goal of providing access and affordibility when it comes to student education.”