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Too Many Lawyers? UM Curator Nomination Is Caught In Debate

Mary Nelson
St. Louis Community College

In recent weeks, the Missouri Senate has considered the nomination of four lawyers to be members of the University Missouri Board of Curators, but only three of them won confirmation.

The fourth, Mary Nelson of St. Louis, was rejected by a committee vote. State Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said that if she joined the board, that would mean that eight of nine curators – all but David Steward of St. Louis – would be lawyers. He said that would be too many members from one profession.

Noting that the university has schools of business, agriculture, journalism and medicine as well as law, Schaefer said he wants to see more professions represented on the governing board of the four-campus system.

“At a minimum I’d like to see somebody on there with a medical background,” he said in an interview in Jefferson City. “I’d like to see someone on there with an agricultural background.

“Eight lawyers out of nine total curators? At some point, there needs to be a broader professional diversity of professional backgrounds on there.”

And, he added, because Nelson works as general counsel for St. Louis Community College, she would face a possible conflict of interest.

Nelson said in an email that she had no comment at this time on her nomination. A spokesman for Gov. Jay Nixon, who has named all current members of the board, would not say whether Nelson’s name would be resubmitted for consideration or withdrawn.

Nixon spokesman Scott Holste said in a statement:
“The governor is pleased that the Senate has approved three of his nominees — David Steelman, Maurice Graham and Phil Snowden — with overwhelming bipartisan support. Each of them, along with nominee Mary Nelson, are outstanding Missourians with longtime connections to the University of Missouri and long records of public service to the people of this state.”

Steelman of Rolla and Snowden of Kansas City, are both lawyers and former members of the General Assembly; Graham of Clayton is a past president of the Missouri Bar. All three earned their law degrees at the University of Missouri.

Steelman took his seat on the board earlier this year. Snowden and Graham were confirmed by the Senate last week as the curators were meeting in Columbia.

But Nelson’s nomination was rejected by a Senate committee last week. One reason cited was the possible conflict posted by her job as general counsel for St. Louis Community College.

Schaefer, who noted that he voted against all three lawyers’ nominations because of their profession, said that the curators consider questions of strategy in higher education that could put them in competition with the community college.

“The question that some people raised on that,” he said, “was who is her responsibility to? Her employer, who is the community college? Or the University of Missouri, as a curator?”

State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, who sponsored Nelson’s nomination as a curator in the Senate, said she did not agree about the potential for a conflict of interest.

“I thought she would be a great fit for the Board of Curators,” Nasheed said, adding: “I didn’t see a conflict. None whatsoever.”

Besides her current job as general counsel of St. Louis Community College, Nelson has served in many capacities on public and private bodies over more than 30 years. Among those posts, she was president of the St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners, a member of the reapportionment and redistricting commission for the Missouri House and a member of the board of trustees of the MU Law School Foundation.

If Nelson were to join the board, she would be the second African-American member, joining Steward, and the the third woman. Asked if race played a role in the rejection of her nomination when three other lawyers, all white men, won confirmation, Nasheed said:

“Some people can point to that as an issue. I’m not going to speculate if it was racially motivated or not.”

Nasheed said she hopes Nixon sends her name back to the Senate, and she hopes that other curators or officials of St. Louis Community College submit opinions that no conflict of interest would exist for her to serve in both positions.

“I think that would make things a little different,” she said.

On his theme of too many lawyers, Schaefer noted that with Nelson’s membership, not only would all but one of the curators be lawyers, but “they’re not all disinterested lawyers. They’re lawyers who have had close connections to the governor.

Kurt Schaefer 2014 mo senator gop dist 19 columbia
Credit Official photo
State Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia

“So I think the first issue is why so many lawyers, which is the first red flag. Why eight out of nine curators as lawyers? In and of itself, I think it’s a lack of diversity of professional background. That raises a red flag. But when you dig one step deeper... they are all lawyers who generally have some unique and discrete connection to the governor, whether that be campaign contributions or that be former employees or former staffers. I think that begs the question even more than why so many lawyers.”

Schaefer, who has declared his candidacy for attorney general in next year’s election, has expressed his concern about Nixon and the curators before. He has introduced a bill in the Senate, SB110 that reads in its entirety:

“This act prohibits any member of the University of Missouri Board of Curators from voting to appoint to, hire, or employ in any way in any position in the university any person who appointed him or her to the board. Any such vote taken by a curator will be null and void. Any curator who violates this prohibition will immediately forfeit his or her curator position.”

It is seen as an effort to block any possibility that Nixon could become president or general counsel of the university system after he leaves the governor’s office when his current term is over.

St. Louis Public Radio is a unit of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Follow Dale Singer on Twitter: @Dalesinger

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.