Upset at dissent in the ranks he sees as undermining his leadership, University of Missouri System President Mun Choi called together deans and top administrators to make it clear he expects griping to end when a decision is made.
Choi used Zoom meetings on July 10 and Monday to make it clear he wanted support for the decision he and the Board of Curators made to keep the Thomas Jefferson statue on campus and prosecute anyone caught vandalizing or tampering with it.
The meeting included a slideshow presentation with surveillance photos of people later cited for acts against the statue, as well as a series of points taken from a 2018 Harvard Business Review article about how employees should handle implementing decisions that they disagree with.
"If — deep down — you don’t feel that senior management makes good decisions (or if you don’t trust the organization or don’t agree with the philosophy and mission), it’s time to start looking for another job," one of the points state.
In an interview Thursday evening, Choi said that is the extreme step.
"If you are a leader, a senior leader at the university, and you don’t agree with the philosophy of the university or you don’t trust the motivations of the senior leaders, then I think you should leave," he said.
Otherwise, he said, the job of administrators and staff is to implement decisions with the same vigor they would apply to actions of which they approve.
"If a decision was made in the best interest of the institution, and that is what we try to do every day, then undermining it is not going to allow the university to achieve its objectives," Choi said.
One of the participants, Dean David Kurpius of the Journalism School, responded to a request for comment about Choi’s presentation.
"As for expectations of support, I believe anyone associated with the University of Missouri cares about its future," Kurpius said. "I trust that Dr. Choi and other leaders at this institution make the best decisions based on the information available at that time."
The slideshow contained three elements, among them the points on carrying out tough decision and a section on how continuing dissent over the Jefferson statue threatens to spiral into a repeat of the Concerned Student 1950 protests of 2015.
Enrollment crashed after the protests and only last year began to recover.
"Lost revenue from tuition and state support due to the aftermath of 2015 is over $200 (million) for MU," the slideshow states.
One of the worst aspects of the loss of enrollment, Choi said, was that the largest drop in undergraduate enrollment was among Black students. While overall enrollment was down 15.2 percent in 2019 compared to 2015, it was down 20.7 percent among Black students.
"We have to come up with creative solutions and avoid the kind of devastating aftermath of 2015, because you could see the ingredients are there because of the racial tensions that exist and because of the sense of uncertainty," Choi said.
The third element, where Choi opened the slideshow, was to put leaders on notice that he expected action when leaders become aware of discriminatory behavior. The actions include intervening, comforting the affected person or people, speak to the offender and take personnel action.
"I don’t want people accused of discriminating to not be held accountable because supervisors are afraid of having the difficult conversation," Choi said. "This is about accountability and how can we carry out the mission of the university."
The issue of the Jefferson statue surfaced again this year when MU sophomore Roman Leapheart started an online petition seeking removal of the statue installed in 2001. The decision that the statute would not be removed was made announced June 12. Since then, there have been two arrests, one for spraying graffiti near the statue and one for tampering with it. The Black Faculty and Staff Organization added its voice to the call for removal in late June.
Whether it is a big decision about university resources, such as the NextGen Precision Health Institute, or public image issues such as whether to remove the statue, Choi said, he expects top leadership who oppose it to remain silent.
"If leaders are not going to say anything about it, if they are just passive, I think that’s OK," Choi said. "But when not just leaders, but staff members are actively, actively contesting that decision that was made at the institutional level and the decision was made that we are not going to move it, and there are continued efforts to have it removed, that’s counter productive, that is totally counterproductive."
In Choi’s view, he said, the administrative staff have a greater responsibility to fall in line with decisions than faculty.
"We have our administrators, leaders of the university, signing a petition to the university saying we should remove it," Choi said. "Administrators have the responsibility to support the mission of the university."
From faculty, Choi said, he expects recognition that the decision on the statue will not change.
"Faculty members have a lot to say and when was the last time a faculty member was told you can’t hold that position?" he said. "We would never say that."
Faculty should work in a constructive way to address the issues raised by the effort to remove the statue, Choi said.
"Instead of continuing to have petitions to move the statue, can you work with the university to contextualize Jefferson?" he said.
The slideshow includes a theme that Choi also wanted to emphasize, that there will be sure consequences if the statue is damaged or defaced.
"Appropriate, consistent investigations and sanctions must be applied," one point states. "Offenders will feel ‘emboldened’ if there are no actions taken."
While Choi said his expectations of dampened dissent apply to those on the university payroll, he doesn’t want to dampen student expression.
It is even possible the statue could be removed without approval, Choi said.
"I can see students doing it," he said. "Students are students, they are not employees."