- Associated Press - Friday, December 11, 2015

ST. LOUIS (AP) - The University of Missouri System faces significant challenges in the wake of its recent turmoil, but also has an opportunity to become a national leader in addressing racial concerns, the system’s interim president said Friday.

Michael Middleton spoke during a meeting of the system’s governing board at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, one of four campuses in the system.

He was appointed interim president following the protests about racial bigotry and the perception that administrators weren’t doing enough about it that resulted in the sudden resignations on Nov. 9 of president Tim Wolfe and Columbia campus chancellor R. Bowen Loftin. That unrest included a student hunger strike and the football team’s threat to stop playing.

Middleton, 68, said the unrest that drew international attention was difficult, even embarrassing. Still, he believes the University of Missouri faces an opportunity to lead the way in confronting racial issues that affect every college campus in the U.S.

“This is a reflection of a long-standing national problem,” Middleton said at a news conference after the meeting. “As is typical in our society, thoughtful young people raised this issue to our attention.”

He told the governing Board of Curators earlier, “I would much rather view it as us being chosen to take the lead to set the world right.”

Middleton was once a student activist at Missouri himself: a founder of the Columbia campus Legion of Black Collegians, which issued its own set of demands to university leaders 46 years ago.

But Middleton said race was just part of a “perfect storm” of issues that culminated last month. Administrators had also been under fire about cuts in health insurance for graduate assistants, actions against a Planned Parenthood facility and other issues.

Middleton said he is not presently interested in permanently becoming president, but didn’t rule it out. He said his goal for now is to “restore the luster of the university, restore the faith and confidence in the university.”

Curator Maurice Graham told Middleton the board will back him in “every effort to achieve the goal.”

Middleton and others at the meeting said efforts to fix the problems that led to the turmoil are already underway. Full-time equity and diversity officers have been appointed at all four campuses. All system policies are under review. A Nov. 20 listening session in Columbia brought together members of the governing board, university leaders and representatives of 14 student groups.

“We need to ensure that diversity is embedded in everything we do,” Middleton said.

Chuck Henson, who was appointed last month to the first-ever role of interim vice chancellor for inclusion, diversity and equity at the Columbia campus, said an 18-month lecture series starting in January will focus on the African-American experience in Missouri. Also starting in January, incoming freshmen will participate in a diversity program.

Senior leaders must make diversity and inclusion part of an overall organization strategy, said Susan Wilson, vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Board of Curators Chairman Donald Cupps agreed.

“We have to, at some point, change the hearts and minds of individuals that may come to our campus that have opinions that are not appropriate,” Cupps said.

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