Commentary

In Missouri, the Downfall of a Business-Minded President

November 11, 2015

Timothy Wolfe should never have been president of the University of Missouri. He was a computer-company executive with no advanced degrees or experience in academic administration. Like so many other unrepresentative, politically appointed boards, Missouri’s Board of Curators chose a private-sector manager to run a public university. Wolfe had virtually no experience with students or scholars.

If he had, one of his first major decisions as president in the spring of 2012 would not have been to shut down the University of Missouri Press. The internationally respected press had been in existence for 54 years and had published over 2,000 titles. These titles included the definitive edition of the collected works of Langston Hughes and the premier series of Mark Twain scholarship. No American writers have written more insightfully about race than these two sons of Missouri, but Wolfe was going to sell off the rights to these titles at garage-sale prices.

A few weeks later, the Board of Curators approved Wolfe’s decision to close the press, ostensibly to save its annual subsidy of about $400,000 (later estimated to be much less). At the same meeting, it announced Phase 1 of a $200-million plan to upgrade Mizzou’s sports facilities.

By committing the university to an athletic arms race and running it like a corporation, Wolfe and the board were heading down a disastrous path.
By committing the university to an athletic arms race and running it like a corporation, Wolfe and the board were heading down a disastrous path. More than 5,000 people signed an online petition opposing the closure of the press, scores of authors claimed breach of contract and demanded that the rights to their books be returned, Missouri’s principal newspapers supported the protest movement, and Wolfe and the university found themselves in the national news. By fall, Wolfe was forced to reverse his position and reinstate the press.

We can see now that these events presaged what has happened in Columbia this fall. Public universities are public trusts, not private corporations. They are a public good in which we must all invest. We used to view them this way. Forty years ago, about two-thirds of their revenue came from state appropriations; that figure is now down to about a fifth. Administrators have tried to wring these lost revenues out of already strapped middle-class parents and their children through higher tuition and enormous student-loan burdens. In the meantime, the number of administrators has skyrocketed, and their compensation packages have swelled to private-sector levels.

On campus, tenure is attacked, teaching is shifted to poorly paid adjuncts and teaching assistants, and students are treated shabbily. Their demands for safe campuses, challenging classes, and basic respect are too often ignored. The privatization of public higher education led Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin, who has since agreed to step down, to yank medical insurance away from graduate assistants, and it led President Wolfe to rush to meetings with big donors while ignoring the concerns of African-American students.

Fortunately, such bottom-line thinking has also led students, faculty, and staff to fight back. This fall Missouri provided us all with the brave example of student leaders (including athletes) who were willing to risk everything in order to make their university the place of learning it should be. Our hope is that the Board of Curators will pick new administrators who see the University of Missouri as a public institution to which we have entrusted our children and our society’s future rather than as a corporation that puts money and skyboxes first.

Making this happen will be difficult. State governors appoint the boards, and the boards appoint the presidents and chancellors. Such a system, as we have seen recently at Purdue, Iowa, the University of North Carolina, and Florida State as well as at Missouri, has led to the appointments of businesspeople, bureaucrats, lobbyists, and politicians as university presidents. Such appointments do not bode well — but students, faculty, and staff at the University of Missouri have demanded something different.

We cannot thank them enough.

Bruce Joshua Miller is editor of Curiosity’s Cats: Writers on Research (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2014) and president of Miller Trade Book Marketing. Ned Stuckey-French is an associate professor of English at Florida State University. They were active in the campaign to save the University of Missouri Press.