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Missouri Chair Defends Direction, Freedom of Speech

June 25, 2018
 
 

The chair of the University of Missouri System Board of Curators defended the system’s direction and its dedication to freedom of speech last week, publicly pushing back against a scathing Wall Street Journal editorial.

David Steelman sent a statement defending the system to faculty, staff and the press during a press conference Friday, and sent a letter to The Wall Street Journal. He is often asked how Missouri is doing since events roiled campus in 2015, he said, referencing student protests about the racial climate and tensions over free speech that erupted that fall.

“I’m direct in saying that mistakes were made at MU,” Steelman said in his statement sent to the press. “But, those individuals responsible for the mistakes are no longer leading the university. And obviously, the institution has paid a price for the mistakes of those individuals. Now we have a new leadership team in place, to support the important work of our students, faculty and staff to achieve excellence. We have also affirmed our commitment to free speech.”

Turmoil erupted at the system’s Columbia campus in 2015 when students protested what they saw as a culture of racism on campus, setting off a series of events leading to the resignation of top administrators. Protesters also blocked access to a site where they were camping, and a Missouri faculty member called for “muscle” to remove a student journalist, drawing outrage. The system later fired that faculty member, Melissa Click.

The Wall Street Journal referenced those incidents in a June 15 editorial beginning with the words “indulging protesters can be expensive” and drawing a line to position cuts at the university.

“Apparently fewer parents want to send their kids to a school where activism eclipses academics,” the editorial said, citing statistics showing freshman enrollment falling by 35 percent between the fall of 2015 and 2017. It went on to call free speech policies at Missouri “ambiguous.”

Steelman’s letter in response argued the editorial perpetuated a narrative eroding higher education. This fall’s freshman class is expected to be 14 percent larger than last year’s, signaling a rebound, he wrote. He continued by referencing controversial speakers the university has hosted and arguing they were listened to and not shouted down.

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