University of Missouri faculty survey scorches Mun Choi for poor morale on Columbia campus

Critics call him a bully who has hurt morale and diversity. But backers cite decisive approach, good relationship with state political leaders as assets missing in past university leaders

By: - September 1, 2022 6:23 pm

Mun Choi, president of the University of Missouri System and chancellor of the Columbia campus, delivers the State of the University address in March (University of Missouri photo).

Many faculty on the University of Missouri’s Columbia campus see top leader Mun Choi as a man to be feared because he runs the campus through intimidation and bullying — driving away those who disagree with his priorities.

And according to a faculty review of Choi’s performance as chancellor released Thursday by the campus Faculty Council, university morale has been “irreparably damaged” by his administrative style.

“I found reading through the comments pretty disheartening, to see how much frustration and kind of genuine sadness there is by so many, so many community members about our institution and the direction we’ve been going,” said Chuck Munter, an associate professor in the university’s college of education and human development, during discussion of the report. “But I don’t think I was surprised.”

A smaller number, the review shows, appreciate Choi’s advocacy for the university, citing his good relationship with political leaders and clear plans for the campus. They said “it is refreshing and exciting to have somebody have a vision…”

The report is based on a survey that drew 547 responses out of the approximately 2,400 full-time faculty.

Choi, who became president of the UM System in 2017, took over as chancellor of the Columbia campus in 2020. He is the first person to hold both top administrative jobs.

The four-campus UM System is the state’s largest public university with almost 70,000 students, and the Columbia campus makes up nearly half of that total, with 31,410 students. The system has an annual operating budget of $3.5 billion, with approximately $470 million from state tax support.

It is one of two land-grant universities in the state, with responsibility to bring learning to every county through the MU Extension Service. The Columbia campus is a member of the American Association of Universities, or AAU, an organization composed of the top public and private research institutions in the country.

Faculty Council Chairman Graham McCaulley said it was the first review of a chancellor’s performance in 10 years and was intended to make the university better. Including interim chancellors, the job has been held by six different people in that period.

“Our goal here is to move our institution forward,” said McCaulley, an associate extension professor and state specialist for nutrition, health and family.

Respondents were asked to rank Choi in a number of areas, and he received an overall ranking 2.26 on a scale of 1 to 5, with five being superior performance. They were also asked to provide comments.

Among ranked faculty without administrative duties, 208 said Choi should not be retained as chancellor, while 87 said he should remain. 

Those with administrative roles and non-tenure track faculty tended to grade Choi higher than tenured professors. The only group that had a greater share who wanted to retain Choi than those that wanted him to be removed were tenured or tenure track faculty who spend more than half their time on administrative duties.

Choi’s lowest rankings were about whether he shows a commitment to shared governance, follows democratic leadership policies, solicits faculty input and is respected by the campus community. There were 100 comments on shared governance, which is intended to give faculty a role in campus decision making.

“He is stunningly opposed to true shared governance and any efforts are lip service at best,” one comment included in the report read.

There were 59 comments about poor morale.

“I have watched the most talented people leave this institution in the last three years because the climate hinders their accomplishments, especially in research,” one comment stated. “I believe that in some respects the faculty and its morale has been irreparably damaged.”

The problem, one commenter said, is Choi does not take criticism well.

“He has fostered a general culture of helplessness and submission across campus in which faculty fear for their individual and departmental security and risk retribution by speaking out,” the comment stated.

Those who back Choi and see him as an asset to the university also provided comments. From that group, 71 praised him for his ability to build relationships.

“He has a very good relationship with the Board of Curators and the legislators in Jefferson City,” one commenter said. “He presents the positive aspects of the university well to external stakeholders.”

His decisiveness, seen as evidence of an authoritarian style by some, drew applause from others. Two dozen commented that his decision making was a strong point.

“He makes difficult decisions that previous administrators were unwilling to make,” one comment read. “I believe his leadership is a breath of fresh air to our campus.”

Choi and the governing Board of Curators were provided copies of the report, held discussions with council members and provided written responses, McCaulley said.

“It was a productive meeting, we answered questions about the report and the process, talked about faculty views and what they were, and we felt that was heard,” McCaulley said.

The curators sought to absorb some of the ire directed at Choi, he said.

“The board believes it is critical for the Faculty Council to appreciate that many of the criticisms of President Choi reflect actions and positions taken in support of shared goals with the Board of Curators,” Darryl Chatman, chairman of the Board of Curators, said in a statement included in the final report. “As an example, comments and criticisms of President Choi related to emphasis placed on our role as an AAU university, greater accountability, shared governance, and the Missouri legislature are generally the result of that alignment in purpose and priority with the board.”

Mun Choi, president of the University of Missouri System and chancellor of the Columbia campus, the system’s oldest and largest (University of Missouri photo).

Choi, in his response, said he found some parts of the survey to be “thoughtful and helpful.”

However, he said, he had also heard many expressions of appreciation of his leadership and suggested that the sample wasn’t large enough to be representative of the whole faculty.

“After reviewing the results, I am interested in finding ways for my cabinet and I to collect more constructive input on a variety of topics from a broader group of faculty,” Choi said.

The report comes at a time when Choi recently surpassed the average tenure of his predecessors. 

Selected in fall of 2016, Choi took over the university on March 1, 2017, and has held the position for 5 years and 5 months. Choi’s nine predecessors as UM System president held the job for an average of 4 years and 11 months.

In August 2017, the Columbia Daily Tribune reported that Choi wanted to keep the job for 10 years or longer

“Obviously, that is not a decision that is going to be mine to make, but I want to be able to contribute with a long-term goal of helping, while leading, but also ensuring we have the strategic vision to make this university even better than it is,” Choi said at the time.

Choi’s biggest achievement to date is the completion of the Roy Blunt NextGen Precision Health Institute, built at a cost of $275 million. Several comments noted his push to get it finished and some questioned its worth.

“His precision medicine building fiasco has diverted funding from other parts of the hospital and university and he is now sacrificing the future of the School of Medicine,” one critical comment stated.

His immediate predecessor as permanent president, Tim Wolfe, resigned amid campus protests over racial issues in the fall of 2015 after less than four years in the job.

More than 40 comments questioned Choi’s commitment to diversity. 

“After 2015, there was some hope for improvement in the racial climate at Mizzou. That hope is now dead,” one commenter stated. “If anything, things are worse than they were before.”

The survey was conducted at the same time as a survey of Provost Latha Ramchand’s performance. The report on that survey, released in July, mirrored some of the criticisms of Choi.

Under the heading “Subservient to President,” one sample comment stated they were uncertain of how Ramchand would work under a different leader.

“It’s hard to know because everyone perceives (Mun Choi) rules with an iron fist,” the provost’s report stated. “It is hard to know what (Ramchand) is able to accomplish with limited possibilities and an overbearing boss.”

Editor’s note: Deputy Editor Rudi Keller is currently employed part-time by the University of Missouri as an adjunct instructor in journalism. 

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Rudi Keller
Rudi Keller

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy and the legislature. He’s spent 22 of his 30 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics, most recently as the news editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune. Keller has won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.

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