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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Administrative, faculty and student discontent led to Loftin’s downfall

The foundation for Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin’s resignation was laid long before students called for UM System President Tim Wolfe’s removal.

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Former MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin speaks Jan. 31, 2015, in the Great Reading Room at Ellis Library. Loftin’s recent resignation was the result of a movement started by faculty members that had been steadily gaining momentum for months.

Maneater File Photo

When Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin announced his resignation the afternoon of Nov. 9, it would have been easy to assume it was a direct result of the student movements and protests over MU’s racial climate that had gained momentum in the weeks before.

Former UM System President Tim Wolfe had stepped down just hours before. The narrative of his resignation is well-known: Graduate student Jonathan Butler began a hunger strike, students rallied behind him, the football team boycotted in support and national media came calling.

But Loftin’s resignation was the result of a different movement that had been steadily gaining momentum behind the scenes for months. This one was caused by administrators.

Hours before he resigned, nine deans from schools across MU sent a letter to the UM System Board of Curators calling for Loftin’s removal. They wrote that Loftin had created a “toxic environment through threat, fear and intimidation.”

The letter cites Loftin’s “handling of race and cultural issues on our campus,” the firing of the dean of the School of Medicine, graduate student health insurance issues and the elimination of the vice chancellor for health sciences position as other factors contributing to Loftin’s “failed leadership.”

The letter was signed by deans of the colleges of education, health professions, law, veterinary medicine, arts and science, and agriculture, food and natural resources and the schools of journalism, nursing and public affairs. The deans declined to speak to The Maneater.

Problems with communication

A Chronicle of Higher Education report published Nov. 20 noted the deans’ frustrations with Loftin since he took office and how they had grown over time.

In the report, the deans collectively said Loftin made it clear that they “worked for him, not with him," and often referred to them as “essential middle management.”

Loftin told the Chronicle those comments were made in jest and his wording was not meant to offend anyone.

The deans especially took issue with the miscommunications and secrecy surrounding the cancellation of health care subsidies for graduate students in August. Loftin told the Missourian he had learned of the cancellation on social media about four hours after students were notified. He told the Chronicle he was “absolutely stunned” by the decision.

Loftin arranged individual phone calls with the deans to discuss their concerns, according to the Chronicle. The deans called them “highly scripted.” Loftin said the phone calls were a sincere effort to apologize and work toward future collaboration.

"It was very surprising to me how strongly held their opinions were, and how much they kept it to themselves for a very long time," Loftin said in the Chronicle article. "Why did they stew on it for so long? Why did it take so much time?"

The deans wrote in their letter that they had met with Wolfe in the presence of both Loftin and Provost Garnett Stokes on Oct. 9 and 13 to ask for Loftin’s resignation. They told the Chronicle that they told Wolfe their relationship with Loftin “could not be repaired.”

On Oct. 21, the curators met in a closed session for four and a half hours. State Rep. Caleb Jones, R-Columbia, speculated on Twitter that Loftin would be fired for his role in shutting down MU’s connections to Planned Parenthood. The curators never disclosed the reason for the meeting.

A deeper discontent

It wasn’t just deans who wanted Loftin gone, though.

On Nov. 3, English department faculty members voted 26-0 on holding “no confidence” in Loftin’s leadership. In a letter to the curators and Wolfe, professor Samuel Cohen wrote on the department’s behalf that Loftin’s tenure as chancellor was marked by “dereliction of duty in maintaining the quality and reputation of graduate education, violations of the bedrock principle of shared governance, and failure to defend the University’s educational mission against outside political pressure.”

“I would like to see somebody who thinks of himself, not as the man or woman in charge making decisions for the faculty and students, but someone who can enable things to happen rather than come in and impose their own ideas,” Cohen said in an interview after Loftin’s resignation.

Cohen wrote that the best course of action would be finding a new chancellor who would be equipped to repair the damage done to graduate programs, practice shared governance and defend academic freedom.

“Campus morale among faculty, staff, and students is at a low point,” Cohen wrote. “The campus climate is not one in which all members of the community feel included and respected.”

Patrick Delafontaine, dean of the School of Medicine, resigned abruptly in September after a short 10-month term. A survey of medical school faculty showed that nearly all faculty members were worried about the effects of the dean’s resignation on the school, including its reaccreditation process and attracting new researchers, according to the Columbia Missourian. The Missourian reported that the survey referred to Delafontaine’s resignation as being forced by Loftin.

On Nov. 5, MU’s Faculty Council released a statement expressing “deep concern” over the “lack of communication and growing uncertainty” regarding both university and UM System leadership.

“This unresolved situation erodes our ability to perform faculty duties of teaching, research and outreach,” the statement read.

Student feedback

In the meantime, Loftin was also facing increasing criticism from students for his responses to a series of racial incidents on campus.

On Sept. 12, Missouri Students Association President Payton Head posted on Facebook about racial slurs that had been yelled at him. Loftin made no public response until Sept. 16, when he released a statement condemning “acts of bias and discrimination.” The deans told the Chronicle Loftin’s response to race-related issues gave students and the public a glimpse of Loftin’s ineffectiveness.

Students held the first of several “Racism Lives Here” protests Sept. 24 and marched to Jesse Hall, calling out Loftin for his delayed response to the incident. Two more protests were held on Oct. 1 and Oct. 11.

After members of the Legion of Black Collegians Homecoming royalty were harassed Oct. 5 during a rehearsal on Traditions Plaza, Loftin responded more quickly. The next morning, he tweeted and released a statement including a video calling on students to help “end hatred and racism at Mizzou.”

On Oct. 8, he announced that mandatory diversity and inclusion training would begin January 2016 for students, faculty and staff.

After protesters stopped Wolfe’s car at the homecoming parade Oct. 10, Wolfe became the new focus of student discontent. The student group Concerned Student 1950, named after the year MU admitted its first black students, issued a list of demands Oct. 20, including Wolfe’s removal from office.

Loftin told the Chronicle he met with Wolfe on the evening of Nov. 8, the day before both of them would resign, to focus on the chancellor’s resignation. Loftin said he had no idea Wolfe was resigning the next day, but in retrospect, Wolfe “seemed distracted.”

Moving forward

When Wolfe announced in December 2013 that Loftin would be MU’s next chancellor, Loftin said he wouldn’t have dreamed of coming to MU without a long-term commitment. He will continue that commitment as the director for research facility development.

Loftin was originally slated to make the transition into his new role Jan. 1, but the curators voted Nov. 11 to transition chancellor responsibilities to interim Chancellor Hank Foley immediately.

According to his transition agreement, obtained through an open records request, Loftin will earn $337,500 per year, 75 percent of his salary as chancellor. He will report to the senior vice chancellor for research and graduate studies. After five years of service “perceived as meritorious to the university,” he will be eligible to receive emeritus chancellor status.

Loftin said in his resignation announcement that he was looking forward to “working to assist the campus community.”

The deans said they recognized the risk in their strategy, especially those with long careers in higher education ahead.

“In the face of this risk, the boldness and conviction of the deans to persist with our calls for the chancellor’s removal are testaments to our level of dissatisfaction with the chancellor’s leadership as well as our commitment to put the institution’s interests ahead of our own,” they wrote.

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