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Nixon wants new curators to get to work in finding new UM System president

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon speaks in St. Louis on Thursday June 9. The governor appointed three new members to the University of Missouri Board of Curators on Wednesday.
Bill Greenblatt I UPI
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon speaks in St. Louis on Thursday. The governor appointed three new members to the University of Missouri Board of Curators on Wednesday.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon expects the three new members of the University of Missouri System Board of Curator to hit the ground running on an important task: choosing a new president.

Nixon appointed Mary Nelson, Thomas Voss and Jon Sundvold to the board last week. As St. Louis Public Radio’s Dale Singer reported, the interim appointees can take office immediately, without confirmation by the Missouri Senate and can serve until Nixon’s successor takes office next year.

During a stop in St. Louis on Thursday, Nixon said he wanted “a full, diverse, strong board” to make “the decisions to get leadership — permanent leadership — for the University of Missouri System and the campus.” Nixon was referencing how curators will pick someone to replace Tim Wolfe, who resigned as president last year. (The new president will subsequently hire a new chancellor for the University of Missouri-Columbia.)

“I think all of those curators understand that they’re together now in a boat,” Nixon said. “And they need to get those leadership decisions made so that we can move to the next positive chapter for the University of Missouri System.”

That system was thrown into turmoil last year after Wolfe resigned amid protests over the treatment of black students at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Mizzou Chancellor Bowen Loftin stepped aside from his job soon after Wolfe's departure. 

The search for permanent leadership comes as  Mizzou is dealing with a plunge in enrollment — which has subsequently resulted in financial problems for the institution. Nixon said “now that there’s a full complement on the board, they’re in the position to make the biggest decisions that you can make for an institution.”

“That’s to define who the new leadership is going to be – and then have all of us support those new leaders and get them off to a solid start,” Nixon said. “And hopefully have the next five years be a continued, positive growth for the institution.”

It’s unknown whether Nelson, Sundvold or Voss will stay on the Board of Curators after the beginning of 2017. The Missouri Senate could reject their nominations — or Nixon’s successor could withdraw their names and put forth different people.

But Nixon said that’s a secondary concern.

“I don’t think any of them are really thinking about next January or the Senate or the House or any of that sort of stuff,” Nixon said. “What they’re thinking about is they have a significant responsibility to their state and to their alumni and to the organizations of our state that so rely on the university system to make sure that we get leaders for the next generation in place.”

Could Nixon be the one?

Nixon will leave the governorship at the beginning of 2017. And that’s stoked some talk about what the Democratic chief executive plans to do next.

Some political observers have theorized that Nixon, who received his undergraduate and law degrees from Mizzou, might try to become the University of Missouri System president. That possibility almost certainly prompted unsuccessful legislation in 2015 to bar the University of Missouri System's Board of Curators from appointing the governor who named them to the board as president.(Nixon has appointed every member of that board.)

When asked on Thursday if he had any interest in seeking out the UM System presidency, Nixon replied: “I really don’t.”

“I want to help the board make a decision,” Nixon said. “I want to help them to get our institution and institutions in the satellite campuses moving forward. And I think the best way to do that is to be an honest broker and a strong advocate for the system. And in that sense, I’m going to do that. So I’m going to be involved to help recruit and lend my hand to it. But that is not a position that I think at this time in my career I’m interested in.”

If Nixon changed his mind, it wouldn’t be without national precedent. Former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels became president of Purdue University after he left office. And former Oklahoma Gov. David Boren has served as president of the University of Oklahoma since 1994.

Still, the Board of Curators has in the past decided against appointing political figures to the UM System presidency before. Back in 2007, they did not offer the job to then-U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof, R-Columbia.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.