MU faculty challenged UM System President and Interim MU Chancellor Mun Choi on Thursday on his recent comments and decisions, expressing concerns about a culture of fear and intimidation among university employees.
Some members of the MU Faculty Council called for an independent investigation into a recent MU Police encounter with a journalist affiliated with the university.
The body did not take formal action on either that matter or the upcoming UM System Board of Curators vote to merge top administrative positions during the council’s final monthly meeting of its current executive term.
Choi said he acted on behalf of the university and in its best interest, affirming his desire to be transparent with campus employees and have an ongoing dialogue on the issues facing MU and the system in an effort to help them understand his perspective.
“We’re working hard, very hard, to support the university,” Choi said. “When I say the university, it’s the people we have. If you can, try to walk in the shoes of someone else. That’s what I always try to do. It’s not always a perfect match, but why is this person coming from that perspective?”
During the meeting, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a column written by Choi explaining his recent actions and comments. He took responsibility for some believing he was attempting to “silence voices,” and he pledged to continue seeking input from campus stakeholders and support free speech while also being able “to express (his) own dissent.”
A resolution was proposed to launch an independent investigation, overseen by the Faculty Council, into a June incident where MU Police visited the home of KBIA reporter and journalism adjunct instructor Sebastián Martínez Valdivia to question him about the defacing of the Thomas Jefferson statue on campus.
MU Police later charged a 20-year-old MU student with a misdemeanor related to the incident.
Choi agreed that if an investigation was launched, he would provide all the information he had about the incident. A formal vote to launch the investigation will be on the agenda of the council’s next meeting.
In a recent interview with the Columbia Tribune, Choi criticized tweets from Martínez Valdivia and KOMU executive producer and MU assistant professor Kellie Stanfield, saying they undermined the mission of the university.
Faculty cited those comments from Choi, in addition to others he made telling senior leaders to back his decision to keep the Jefferson statue on campus, as examples of what several said they believed to be furthering a culture where faculty and staff were specifically targeted for disagreeing with Choi’s decisions.
Several faculty, speaking both directly to Choi during the meeting and posting in the meeting’s Zoom chat, said they had received personal calls or emails from Choi about issues they disagreed on, sometimes with their supervisors or other administrators copied.
“It’s hard to not feel intimidated when you receive communication from the president of the university,” said teaching professor of political science William Horner.
Horner disagreed when Choi suggested that he was doing so to help them understand his perspective.
“This is a different way to be contacted,” Horner said.
Choi repeatedly defended his communication with faculty and staff, and said there had been several times in which his conversations with other people at the university had influenced or changed his mind about making decisions.
While MU leaders were deciding the best course of action last spring as the pandemic became more urgent, Choi said, he shifted from the mindset he originally had of campus being able to withstand a few cases before shutting down.
Asked again to elaborate on the decision behind his refusal to remove the Jefferson statue from the Quad, Choi said he spoke with “a number of constituents,” and did so knowing that moving the statue could result in a “backlash” against the university and a loss of “significant funding.”
Those concerns and challenges bled into a Faculty Council discussion about an upcoming vote by the UM System Board of Curators to change the system’s governing structure. That includes the possibility of combining the positions of UM System president and MU chancellor, which Choi now holds on an interim basis.
The council did not formally act ahead of the vote planned for Tuesday, making it the only one of the system’s four faculty bodies to not publicly oppose or express concern about the matter.
The council’s executive committee met with several curators last week, Faculty Council chair Clark Peters said in an email to faculty, which he said “left an impression that the board is strongly in favor of consolidating UMS and MU leadership roles.”
The bodies representing faculty at the St. Louis, Kansas City and Rolla campuses have all opposed the merger, citing potential conflicts of interests and undermining their campuses’ authority and funding. The University of Missouri-St. Louis Faculty Senate and University Assembly sent a letter to the board Thursday. Curators assured those campuses in their responses that they would address those concerns.
Peters said he had received over 12 pages of comments from faculty about the upcoming merger and said that although the council did not take formal action, he would likely send those comments to the Board of Curators.
Faculty and Choi also discussed MU’s promotion and tenure process. Choi said this past year, he had 61 faculty cases up for promotion or promotion and tenure. He requested further clarification or asked questions of about 20 of those, he said, and in the end did not support seven of them.
One of those seven cases, regarding Ashley Woodson, an assistant professor of education, gathered significant attention after a change.org petition calling for reconsideration of her tenure denial garnered almost 14,000 signatures.
The petition claims Woodson’s denial was based on student evaluations, skewed negatively due to the subject matter of her classes — including “white privilege, racial inequity and collective guilt.” An associated GoFundMe page for Woodson raised its goal of $5,000.
Administrators including Choi, Provost Latha Ramchand and T. Chris Riley-Tillman detailed the process in reaching tenure decisions, which involves several committees at the department, college and campus levels, for both non-tenure track and tenured and tenure-track faculty.
They said MU leaders plan to continue to work with faculty about the process.