Mun Y. Choi named 24th UM System president

The announcement comes exactly a week before the one-year anniversary of former UM System President Tim Wolfe’s resignation.

Courtesy of the University of Connecticut Provost's Office

Updated to reflect additional comments from University of Connecticut officials.

Mun Y. Choi, the University of Connecticut’s provost, is the UM System’s 24th president, concluding a nearly yearlong search.

Board of Curators Chairwoman Pam Henrickson’s announcement on Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. at the Capitol Plaza Hotel in Jefferson City came exactly a week before the one-year anniversary of former UM System President Tim Wolfe’s resignation.

“An outstanding and visionary leader, Dr. Choi understands and appreciates the value of public higher education, having devoted his impressive career to the success and inclusion of all students, progressive education scholarship and state economic development,” Henrickson said during the announcement.

In an address to those in attendance, Choi said he plans to work with the UM System community, politicians and stakeholders to “create an environment that is welcoming and inclusive,” secure more funding and improve the four campus’ competitiveness as top research institutions.

Choi will step into office on March 1. He will remain provost at UConn until Feb. 1.

The first Asian president of the UM System and third minority president, Choi has served as provost at the University of Connecticut since 2012, when he beat out Hank Foley, now the interim MU chancellor, and another candidate for the position. Choi arrived at UConn in 2008 in the mechanical engineering department. Previously, he served as department head of mechanical engineering and associate dean for research at Drexel University and a faculty member at the University of Illinois.

MU and the UM System made national news in November 2015 after student activist group Concerned Student 1950 published a list of demands, member Jonathan Butler went on a hunger strike, and the football team boycotted and refused to play. Wolfe came under fire after some, including Concerned Student 1950, said that he didn’t properly acknowledge and handle a series of racist incidents in fall 2015.

On Nov. 9, 2015, Wolfe and MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin both resigned.

Following Wolfe’s resignation, the Board of Curators named Mike Middleton interim president. Prior to being named interim UM System president, Middleton was deputy chancellor emeritus and a professor emeritus of law.

An education background

Faculty criticized Wolfe for having a business background. English professor Karen Piper told The Maneater in April that Wolfe called faculty “the lower-level.”

“[It’s] just insulting to faculty because we're supposed to be co-governing with the administrators,” Piper said.

During a Faculty Council meeting in March, members said they wanted a president who was “not Tim Wolfe” — in other words, not someone who lacked an understanding of higher education.

With more than 24 years of experience in higher education, Choi meets that stipulation.

Choi is familiar with budget cuts, which MU has undergone this school year. As UConn’s provost, he oversaw a $40 million budget deficit and a $1.8 million cut to UConn’s libraries. MU currently has a $32 million budget shortfall with a $1.2 million cut to MU Libraries.

Having a background in higher education, Choi said, has allowed him to understand faculty, staff and students.

“Speaking for my background in academia, having the background I’ve had… has been very supportive of my development as an administrator,” Choi said.

Diversity and inclusion have been leading topics of discussion within the UM System recently. Joelle Murchison, UConn’s associate vice president and chief diversity officer, said in an email that Choi has been “a supportive partner” in diversity and inclusion initiatives at UConn.

“He has not only ensured access to his sphere of influence to begin important dialogue related to faculty of color hiring, for example, but has also placed renewed focus on existing programs to enhance outcomes,” Murchison said in the email.

However, one UConn faculty member said Choi is lacking in the areas of diversity and inclusion.

Noel A. Cazenave, a sociology professor, told The Maneater that when UConn had its own racist incidents on campus last fall, Choi was “virtually invisible.”

“We had forums, we had meetings, we had protests, and he wasn't there,” Cazenave said. “And I think that if you were to call a random sample of UConn students, maybe even faculty and staff, and ask them who this person is, they wouldn't know.”

Cazenave said Choi seemed more concerned with STEM-based initiatives than moving the whole campus forward. He did little in areas of diversity and inclusion, Cazenave said, and he didn’t seem interested as interested in the humanities and other areas that do not bring as much money and prestige to the university.

Cazenave was on a provost’s commission on institutional diversity, which was created before Choi’s appointment as provost. But Cazenave resigned after Choi began serving as provost because he said Choi and the university’s president, Susan Herbst, didn’t show up to the any of the commission’s meetings and “showed no real interest” in the commission’s work.

“I think that people can be misled by the fact that now-President Choi is a person of color, that he cares about the issues that affect people of color,” Cazenave said. “I haven't seen any evidence of that.”

UConn spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz said in an email that Choi cares deeply about diversity and inclusion.

“The importance of diversity and inclusion — both on our campus and in society in general — is one of Mun’s core commitments both professionally and personally, and any suggestion otherwise is factually inaccurate and fundamentally unfair,” Reitz said in the email.

While Choi didn’t do “terrible things” to anyone, Cazenave said that the provost had “no real presence.”

“I would say he's not a good choice because [the University of Missouri has] had serious issues that related to racism on campus and I assume other diversity-related issues,” Cazenave said. “I think hiring him is a mistake."

But Murchison said in the email that Choi’s leadership in various diversity initiatives — from a national research initiative focused on women and girls of color to a doctoral fellowship program for underrepresented students in STEM majors — is “notable.”

“In my experience, he has repeatedly offered up creative solutions — and most importantly the resources to back them,” Murchison said in the email.

Choi said during the announcement and again during a press conference that he plans to listen to the UM System community and work to understand concerns they have. He called faculty, staff and students the “heart and soul” of the university system and said that he wants to make positive changes.

He said he read Concerned Student 1950’s demands last October when they were published and closely followed the events that made national news. The unrest on MU’s campus, he said, isn’t isolated to Missouri; campuses across the nation have problems and concerns about racism.

He also discussed free speech at MU, which has been a topic of discussion since communication professor Melissa Click made national news for “calling for muscle” to remove a student journalist from Concerned Student 1950’s camp.

“It was an incident that is not unique to University of Missouri system,” Choi said. “I think it’s critical for all of us to have a balance between free speech and academic freedom that is inclusive, collegial and respectful.”

Choi said he will work closely with the diversity and inclusion staff, but won’t solely rely on one person to create positive change.

“It’s not the responsibility of just one individual,” Choi said.

In an email sent to the UConn community announcing Choi’s appointment as president, Herbst wrote that Choi will be missed.

“He has been invaluable to me and to UConn as a whole,” Herbst wrote. “I cannot thank him enough for his service to the university and for his friendship.”

Steven Chaffin, the director of the systemwide student legislative advocacy organization The Associated Students of the University of Missouri, said in an email that ASUM looks forward to continuing its relationship with the UM System administration in the coming months.

“The role of UM System President is more important than ever before — a fact I am sure he knows all too well — and I hope meaningful steps will be taken to aid the university community as it looks to define its path forward with regard to our relationship to the legislature and social justice issues,” Chaffin said in the email.

The Coalition of Graduate Workers said in a statement that the group looks forward to working with Choi and resolving its ongoing lawsuit with the UM System for graduate worker unionization.

“We hope that in his new role, Dr. Choi will recognize the regretfully costly and wasteful nature of the University’s decision to force legal action, and will voluntarily recognize the union.” the statement read. “It is clear to us and many campus constituencies that long-term stability and institutional health can only be achieved by good faith bargaining between graduate employees and the University’s leadership.”

Choi said in a press conference following the announcement that before issuing an opinion about unionization, he must first better understand the situation.

A closed search

The presidential search started in January. Since then, the committee has worked to gather community input, draft a qualifications statement and interview candidates with the assistance of the Isaacson, Miller search firm.

For the past month, the committee, comprised of the curators, alumni, faculty, staff and students, has interviewed finalists in both St. Louis and Kansas City. Because of worries about candidates’ employers discovering their status, the search was shrouded in secrecy, with no names being released.

Rumors of the presidential announcement circulated in recent weeks — toward the end of October, many believed the search would come to a close, but the curators were mum. On Monday, after the Board of Curators announced the president would be named, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that multiple sources confirmed the president would be Choi.

Henrickson said there were “outstanding candidates in the search process.”

Because of his experience with a land grant university, Henrickson said, the board decided to choose Choi.

Altogether, Isaacson, Miller reached out to 228 candidates and interviewed 12 individuals, five of those being finalists. The search committee recommended three candidates for consideration by the board, and the board officially voted in favor of Choi on Oct. 31.

Cazenave said the first 100 days in Choi’s term as president will be telling — the goals he sets and what he prioritizes will foreshadow the rest of his tenure as president.

"I think that students should light a fire in him, they should ask him questions, they should get commitments from him [in the first 100 days],” Cazenave said. “What he does then will tell who he is and what he's going to do.”

Choi said that he plans to work hard as president to improve the UM System.

“You’ll always find me [in my office],” Choi said. “I’ll work hard. And I’m going to have a board that’ll ensure I work hard each and every day.”

Victoria Kuz contributed to this report.

Edited by Nancy Coleman | ncoleman@themaneater.com

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