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Interim UM president tells curators he’s ‘optimistic’ diversity plan will bring change

University of Missouri system President Mike Middleton prepares to testify Wednesday before the Joint Committee on Education.
File photo | Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
University of Missouri system President Mike Middleton prepares to testify before the Joint Committee on Education.

With a new system presidentarriving in March and the diversity plan that was initiated days before his appointment in place, interim President Mike Middleton told the University of Missouri curators Friday the year since his appointment in the wake of protests at the Columbia campus had been productive.

“If you think about where we were last December and where we are today, we have much to be proud of collectively,” said Middleton. He was appointed to take charge of the four-campus system last November after former president Tim Wolfe was criticized for how he handled racial issues on the Columbia campus.

“With (the diversity task force) recommendations and the commitment from our campuses and our campus communities, I’m optimistic the culture we will continue to see cultivated across our great university system will improve greatly,” Middleton said during his report to the UM Board of Curators meeting Friday at the University of Missouri-St. Louis campus.

Asked after the session what would be sign that the university system is better serving students of color, Middleton said in large part the plan’s success will come down to putting money behind the recommendations.

“The more of those recommendations that we can actually fund and implement, it sets up the structure to make us a much better university, a more hospitable university. But culture change, which is what we really need, takes time,” Middleton said. “I have to say, there probably isn’t a good measure of that. But when people feel engaged and welcomed and not threatened, that’s the sign that we’ve made some progress.”

Middleton said the UM system has provided all four campuses with a little funding to to start implementing the recommendations, and all four have supplemented that with money from their budgets.

“We’re going to have to continue to find funding to maintain and build on these initiatives,” Middleton said. “That’s going to be a problem with the ... expected declining revenue from the state. But if it’s important then you have to find the resources. And it is important. And I assure you that (incoming president) Dr. Choi thinks it’s as important as I do.”

Finances don't 'look promising'

Middleton acknowledged the university’s finances are in limbo with Republican Eric Greitens headed to the governor’s mansion, noting that the system’s economic situation “doesn’t look promising.”

“I understand projections on state revenue looking forward are down, and of course a good portion of our funding comes from the state. So we don’t expect significant growth in revenue, which then means we’ve simply got to find more efficiencies. And we’re working on doing that,” Middleton said.

“It’s not going to be easy, and it’s a shame. Higher education is so important to the future of our society that we’ve got to find ways to grow it and make it better. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Middleton said he met Greitens once a few years ago, and was “quite impressed with him.”

He and Choi will be having dinner with the governor-elect on Sunday.

Last year, state legislators upset with the system’s response to protests on the Columbia campus threatened to cut funding. But the system ended up with a budget increase.

Board officers

Also at the Friday meeting, Curator Maurice Graham of Clayton was selected to be the board’s new chair. He heads the law firm Gray, Ritter & Graham. He replaces Pamela Henrickson of Jefferson City, whose term on the board expires Jan. 1. John Phillips of Kansas City will become vice chairman.

The University of Missouri’s Board of Curators holds the license for St. Louis Public Radio.

Follow Camille on Twitter: @cmpcamille.