UM President Choi criticized for intimidation and threats to freedom of speech

The University of Missouri Faculty Council
approved a resolution to censure Mun Choi, interim University of Missouri
Chancellor and University of Missouri System President, on Oct. 15 for failure
to follow faculty promotion and tenure guidelines.

The vote comes at a time when professors,
including leading journalism professors, have criticized Choi for chilling free

The resolution censured Choi for his failure to
read the written recommendations for each candidate before he made his final
decision. According to the resolution, Choi was not aware of the
recommendations. The recommendations were provided by the Campus Promotion and
Tenure Advisory committee for the 2019-2020 academic year.

Seven of the 61 candidates were rejected by

Choi considered only the votes for each
candidate. This violates his responsibilities as chancellor and president,
according to the University of Missouri System rules.

Before making his decisions, Choi conferred
with the provost, deans and faculty. He then read the recommendations after he
made his final decision. He stated the written recommendations did not change
his mind.

The University of Missouri Faculty
Council’s resolution urges Choi to issue a written apology and an explanation
for how future Campus Promotion and Tenure Advisory Committee feedback will be

The censure is a statement of formal
disapproval for Choi’s conduct, but there is no real consequence. The statement
is meant to acknowledge that Choi has been censured by the council, said Dennis
Crouch, the faculty council’s parliamentarian.

“There is no particular impact of this
statement,” Crouch said. “It’s just a statement that you did something wrong.”

Twelve council members voted in favor of the
censure, seven against and three abstained. There were more members who didn’t

Council member Rabia Gregory told the Columbia Missourian that Choi’s appearance in the meeting caused some faculty not to vote. “When you appeared in this meeting as we were voting about a possible censure measure, I did a quick number count: A number of people who might have otherwise voted did not vote at all,” she said.

Tom Warhover, Missouri School of Journalism
professor and Faculty
Council member, attended the Zoom meeting where the vote took place. He
explained why some people didn’t vote.

“We can’t say for sure
why, but it was not the case for previous votes that day,” he said. “It leads
an inquisitive mind to wonder why.” He confirmed that Choi entered the zoom meeting.

Choi’s behavior toward students and faculty
has been under scrutiny since Missouri School of Journalism faculty members
sent a letter to Choi in early September. The 15
faculty members who signed the letter stated their dismay in Choi’s attitude
toward free speech and his contradiction of the J-School’s “Missouri Method.”

“I don’t believe anybody is working here with a malicious
intent, but I believe the way the president is giving his thoughts could be way
better,” Warhover said.

This letter came after university actions
against Sabastian
Martinez Valdivia
, a health reporter for KBIA and an adjunct
professor of journalism at the J-School.

In late June, the university refused to
remove a Thomas Jefferson statue that sits on the University of Missouri’s
quad, just down the sidewalk from the Journalism School.

“After further discussion with other
curators, the university decided not to remove the Jefferson statue,” Choi,
also interim MU chancellor, said in a statement. “We learn from history. We
contextualize historical figures with complex legacies. We don’t remove

This decision spurred activists to protest
near the statue, and graffiti has appeared.

One night in June, a red spray painted
message showed up on the sidewalk next to the statue. It said, “SAY HER NAME
SALLY HEMINGS.” A University of Missouri undergraduate took a photo and posted
it to his Twitter account.

The next day, police officers from the MU
Police Department went to Valdivia’s house and asked for an interview. The
officers maintained Valdivia matched the description of the suspected person
who spray painted the graffiti on the sidewalk, according to Kellie Stanfield, a University of Missouri
assistant professor of journalism who lives with Valdivia.

The police officers showed Valdivia print
outs of tweets he had written. The tweets criticized the university for its
decision to not remove the Thomas Jefferson statue.

Valdivia said he did not deface the statue.

Ryan Famuliner, news director at KBIA,
became aware of the situation when Choi emailed Valdivia in late July.
Famuliner says the email exchange is a public record because it occurred on
official university accounts. Famuliner tweeted the screenshots of the emails.

In response to Choi’s emails to Valdivia,
Warhover said Choi’s intentions are clear.

“The message is clear that the president is
saying these are my boundaries,” he said.

But Christian Basi, spokesman for Choi,
said the president had other intentions.

“The chancellor wanted to encourage
respectful conversation,” he said.

One of the reasons Warhover thinks School
of Journalism faculty are hesitant to voice an opinion is some faculty members
are on contracts that run on a year by year basis. These professors do not have
the safety of the tenured track.

“The perception is that this could come
back to you in a real way,” Warhover said.

KBIA also depends on the university. Famuliner explained that KBIA’s license is owned by the University of Missouri System, similar to the other two-thirds of public radio stations in the U.S. Despite being owned by colleges or universities, it is standard practice for these newsrooms to remain editorially independent.

“In my 9 years at KBIA that has been the practice here as
well, and I feel it necessary to assert the continuance of that practice of
editorial independence,” Famuliner said. “I believe, as do many other public
radio stations and the universities that hold their licenses, that this
separation serves the interests of both the newsroom and the University, and
ultimately our community.”

Warhover said Famuliner’s statement is transparent and eye-opening.

“It was the rest of the story,” he said.

Basi said that Choi understands the separation of the
newsroom and the university.

“He respects the journalism industry and the news
gathering process,” he said. “There is an expectation of separation.”

The journalism faculty letter also came days after Choi
blocked University of Missouri students on his personal Twitter account. A majority of the
students he blocked had criticized the university’s health and safety measures
with in-person classes resuming this fall.

Choi eventually unblocked the students once he came under
more scrutiny and an alumnus threatened legal action.

Basi explains Choi’s intentions for blocking the students.

“The president had been the target of profane and
non-constructive tweets, and he did not feel like seeing that,” he said. “He
decided to reverse the blocking because he was trying to run the university
with the pandemic and did not want the distraction.”

In late July, Choi wrote an opinion column for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that expanded upon the university’s commitment to free speech. The column came after Famuliner’s post. Choi said:

after I came on board in March 2017, the UM System and the four universities
approved the commitment to freedom of expression. In January 2020, I also
established the Intellectual Pluralism and Freedom of Expression Task Force. I
stated in the charge that, “in many ways, universities have been reactive when
it is perceived that diverse views are unwelcome or free speech is curtailed.
We want to be proactive to address these perceptions” to establish new programs
and training.

I have always been available to have discussions in person, by phone, Zoom or
email with all members of our campus communities. During the past four months
at Mizzou, there have been more meetings with faculty, staff, students,
administrators, parents, legislators, alumni and community members on the
important matters of budget, pandemic and race relations than in recent

In response to the journalism faculty members’ letter,
Choi said:

“My statements were interpreted by some as an attempt
to silence voices, particularly when they were applied to those working in
journalism. That is in no way my intent, and I take responsibility that my
words did not deliver the message I intended.”

After former MU Chancellor, Alexander Cartwright, was
selected as the new president of the University of Central Florida in March
2020, Choi stepped in to become interim chancellor. Choi has been the president
of the University of Missouri System since 2017.

In July, the decision to
merge the positions
of chancellor and president was made, but not without
opposition from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, the University of
Missouri-St. Louis and the Missouri University of Science and Technology.

Faculty from the three universities sent a letter opposing the
combination of the two positions to the Board of Curators, but the board still
voted unanimously for the merger. Eight of the nine Board of Curators members
are alumni of the University of Missouri-Columbia. The merger will save the
University of Missouri System about $500,000, compared to the $3.5 billion
budget for fiscal year 2020.

On Friday, the chair of the Board of Curators put out a
statement of support for Choi:

“The MU Faculty Council’s censure of President Mun Choi
approved by a small group of 12 members asserted that he showed a lack of care
and thoroughness in tenure promotion and review. Nothing could be further from
the truth,” said Julia Brncic, chair of the Board of Curators.

“President Choi and Provost Latha Ramchand performed
rigorous and comprehensive reviews of information provided by departmental
committees, department chairs, college committees, deans and the campus
committee. The Board stands behind the integrity of President Choi’s reviews
and is committed to upholding high academic standards to achieve excellence.”

Warhover thinks it is fair for the Board of Curators to
back Choi, but it sends a message.

“Choi’s bosses are backing him and specifically reaching
out to say that and to cast dispersion to those who are not backing him,” he

In 2015, the University of Missouri’s former president, Tim Wolfe, was forced to step down after mishandling civil rights protests intended to revive awareness of the struggle against racism and other forms of discrimination on MU’s campus and around the country.

At the beginning of October, the University of Missouri Faculty Council on University Policy released a “We Remember” statement on the 2015 protests. It promises to ensure diversity, equity and inclusion on campus and within the state.

Regan Mertz is a senior Investigative Convergence Journalism major at the Missouri School of Journalism. This summer, she was chosen for a School of Journalism fellowship to report for the Missouri Information Corps, a project by the Missouri School of Journalism and the Missouri Press Association. Regan is from Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.