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Columbia resident Wenneker named chair of UM Board of Curators

Six columns stand outside of Jessie Hall at the University of Missouri. It is dark outside so the columns are lit up by lights on the ground.
Austin Anderson
Robin Wenneker is appointed as chair of UM board of Curators.

ST. LOUIS — A Columbia woman has been appointed to lead the organization that governs the University of Missouri System and its four campuses.

Robin Wenneker, who has served on the UM System Board of Curators since 2020, was named chair of the nine-person group during a regular meeting Thursday in St. Louis. Wenneker is replacing Michael Williams, who will remain on the board until his term ends Jan. 1, 2025.

“All of our campuses, all of our universities are doing incredible things,” said Wenneker, whose appointment as chair was approved unanimously by the curators. “As I look forward, I think we always talk about academic excellence, our need to be an outstanding university. We talk about our need to continue to grow our research dollars, (which is) always important.”

Wenneker graduated from MU in 1991.

“Robin has a lot of qualities of being a board chair,” said Robert Blitz, the curator who nominated Wenneker. “When I look at someone who wants to be a leader, Robin checks all the boxes.”

Todd Graves was unanimously chosen as vice chair.

“I believe Todd to be a good guy, a good family man … and someone at the top of his position,” said Robert Fry, the curator who nominated Graves.

Graves has served on the board since he was nominated by Gov. Mike Parson in 2021.

“It’s exciting,” Graves said. “I’m happy to work with the administration. … I think we’ve had strong leaders in (former chair Darryl) Chatman, Williams and Wenneker, and so it’s just a good time to be here, and I’m grateful that I’m able to.”

Money matters

Curators voted unanimously to increase predominant student housing and dining costs by 4.1% on MU’s campus. These changes will take effect during the summer.

Housing operations make up 37% of MU’s outstanding debt, and housing rates are the primary way the university services that debt, university officials said.

According to the meeting minutes, rate increases try to balance affordability for students and the need to maintain facilities in a competitive market.

“The rates really are driven by, ‘What’s the debt service? What’s the building maintenance we’ll need?’” said Ryan Rapp, UM System executive vice president of finance and operations. “Plus we have some vendors, and then just the inflationary pressure we feel.”

Rapp said he’s focused on giving students a variety of housing and dining options. He said that some students want simpler and cheaper housing and dining, while others are willing to spend more to get higher-end options.

In a unanimous vote, the curators also approved a $43 million Veterinary Medical Expansion project. The project will be funded by a state appropriation from the Missouri Department of Agriculture.

The proposed project would replace the current Veterinary Medical Center that has stood since the mid-1970s. The project has an expected end date of fall 2026.

Race-based gifts and endowments

Curators also voted unanimously to remove racial and ethnic criteria from endowments and gifts.

This comes after a directive given by Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey on June 29, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College.

The curators’ legal counsel determined that provisions of any endowment or gift agreement that recited any racial or ethnic criteria or preference would be unlawful. The legal counsel “has recommended to all Financial Aid and Advancement Offices that no future awards shall be made therefrom with use of such Racial Criteria,” according to language in the resolution approved by curators.

The resolution further explained that some gift and endowment agreements include clauses that give curators the power to change the terms of the agreements, many of which were made years ago, due to changing circumstances.

Curators also voted unanimously, with Graves abstaining, to pass changes to the UM System’s nepotism rules.

The change was made to make the rules fall in line with state regulations on nepotism. It also made it clear curators shall not interfere in the hiring or appointment of anyone related to them by blood or marriage.

Retirement benefits

Three sections of UM system’s retirement benefits were amended. These amendments passed nearly unanimously, with an abstention from curator Jeffrey Layman.

Most of the changes were to comply with the SECURE 2.0 Act, a federal legislation focused on improving retirement saving options.

The curators voted to adopt a short-term disability plan nearly unanimously, with an abstention from Layman. The plan lays out how university employees will be compensated in the event of a qualifying medical disability.

Education enhancements

The board unanimously voted to approve three new Bachelor of Science degrees at MU — engineering technology and environmental engineering in the MU College of Engineering, and data science in the College of Arts and Science.

It also unanimously voted to approve two new doctoral degrees at Missouri S&T in bioengineering and biological sciences.

Energy technology

Curators heard a presentation of a proposal for the Center for Energy Innovation, which will be brought before the board for approval during the regular February meeting.

The building, if approved, would house a convergence of energy technology and would be nestled behind the engineering building, where there is an empty plot now.

In the presentation, Roseanna Zia, the associate dean for research in the College of Engineering, said the building would be closely connected to the MU Research Reactor in the sense that many faculty members and researchers would use both locations for their research.

Mun Choi, UM System president and MU chancellor, said he expects to see at least a 25% increase in federal funding as a result of the research that would take place inside the building.

He added that the university has learned a lot about this sort of project thanks to MU’s NextGen Precision Health research facility that opened in 2021.

“The NextGen building was built with the purpose of creating collaboration,” Choi said. “And in the same way, the Center for Energy Innovation will bring wall-less laboratories so that we have the very best of our faculty and students and staff working on these very innovative problems.”

The proposal is for a $160 million energy research facility on MU’s campus. So far, the school has raised $6.3 million philanthropically and expects to raise a total of $121 million via that route.

If approved, the three-story building could be ready for final move-in as early as March 2027.

The Columbia Missourian is a community news organization managed by professional editors and staffed by Missouri School of Journalism students who do the reporting, design, copy editing, information graphics, photography and multimedia.
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