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 speech.

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.

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 considered.

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 vote.

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 history.”

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:

“Soon 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.

Personally, 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 memory.”

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 said.

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.

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