JEFFERSON CITY — The University of Missouri is trying to repair its image by cutting the cost of education, changing rules to address legislative concerns and engaging with the public, UM System President Mun Choi said Wednesday.
Choi and Columbia campus Chancellor Alexander Cartwright spent about 30 minutes testifying to the Joint Committee on Education, a hearing that was far tamer than a meeting of the same committee held just a few months after the November 2015 campus protests that helped force out their predecessors.
“The problems the University of Missouri faces and the problems the university faced in November 2015 are problems we now own,” Choi said.
The university is working to fix enrollment issues by cutting costs and increasing scholarships, Choi said. At the same time, it is moving ahead with construction of research and teaching facilities without depending on state support to finance them.
“Business as usual will not occur and we are committed to being more collaborative, transparent, efficient and most importantly accountable to all of you and the citizens of Missouri,” Choi said.
The lack of pointed questioning shows the change in attitudes toward UM, Chairman David Wood, R-Versailles said afterward. Lawmakers are receiving far fewer complaints about the university and want to give the new leaders a chance to implement their plans, he said.
“Dr. Choi and Dr. Cartwright are doing a good job but you are also in a honeymoon phase,” Wood said. “It is still the very early stages and the beginning and I think they have made some good steps, and we will just see how those pay off.”
Choi began his duties on March 1 and Cartwright began working on Aug. 1. The hearing was just the second time they have testified together before a legislative committee. Speaking after the hearing, Choi said he thought it was a good session and that he was able to deliver a message that the UM System is more responsive to the public and concerned about student success, research and public engagement.
During the past 10 months, he said, he has tried to meet with as many lawmakers as possible in their home areas as he travels the state.
“Through those exchanges I get to meet with their constituents and learn how we as the University of Missouri system can improve their lives,” Choi said. “They want us to be more accountable. They want us to be able to say we have made investments in programs that really does lead to student success, so our students are trained to become critical thinkers and trained to be resilient.”
In his testimony, Cartwright focused on affordability and enrollment issues on the Columbia campus. In the fall, enrollment of first-time college students was more than 30 percent below 2015 levels and overall campus enrollment is down almost 13 percent from the record set in 2015.
In the spring of 2017, only 16,151 students applied for admission to MU, down almost 6,000 from the spring of 2015. Last year, the university announced new scholarship programs including the Land Grant Compact, which will cover unmet tuition costs for students eligible for Pell grants and all unmet costs for honors students who receive Pell grants. The university also cut room rates for some residence halls and changed meal plans to provide lower-cost options.
The result is an increase in applications, Choi and Cartwright said, with Choi adding that all four campuses are seeing an upswing in applications.
“It is a public institution that first and foremost serves Missouri and I want people to understand and expect that their public land grant institution will do the things that are best for Missouri and to move this whole state forward,” Cartwright said.
During questioning, Wood asked about renting unused dorm rooms for football weekends and campus events. He was worried, he said later, that it showed desperation for cash.
“When you can start using your dorm rooms as hotel rooms, you are in a bit of an issue,” he said.
The response, that the dorm rooms sold well and that the guests enjoyed reliving a bit of their college days, pleased him, he said.
Rep. Courtney Allen Curtis, D-Ferguson, focused on issues at the School of Medicine, which received an accreditation report last year that cited a lack of diversity as an issue. This year’s applications for medical school, Choi told him, reflect a 48 percent increase in the number of underrepresented minorities seeking admission.
That’s a remarkable achievement, Curtis said, asking that he receive a report by the end of the legislative session on the actual admissions for the fall.
“They have had problems for years and it seems if you were able to solve that so quickly, it seems that someone didn’t want to do that in the past,” Curtis said.