- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 3, 2016

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - The interim president of the University of Missouri system told lawmakers Wednesday their concerns about the turmoil last year at the state’s flagship campus are being addressed as he urged them not to cut higher education funding.

November protests by students over what some saw as administrators’ indifference to racial issues culminated in the resignations of the former system president and Columbia chancellor. Since then, the University of Missouri has been a magnet for lawmaker complaints, with some calling for greater scrutiny of the budget this year and possible funding cuts.

Interim president Mike Middleton testified during a House committee hearing on state funding for public colleges.

“I certainly hear your concerns and take them very seriously,” Middleton said. “I know that they represent not only your concerns but the concerns of your constituents back home, and I’ve taken steps to address those concerns in the very best way possible.”

Much of the legislative fallout has centered on suspended assistant professor Melissa Click, who called for “some muscle” to help remove a student videographer from the protest area on campus. Click reached a deal with prosecutors to do community service instead of facing charges and has said she regretted her actions.

Middleton told lawmakers Columbia campus interim Chancellor Hank Foley in response launched a free-speech taskforce. He also noted Click’s suspension and progress on diversity initiatives.

The system announced Wednesday $921,000 would be spent toward diversity and inclusion initiatives such as a campus climate survey, additional training for Mizzou and system administrators and students, and mental health support.

Lawmakers on the House panel didn’t threaten budget cuts, but asked questions about spending in the system, a recent drop in the system’s credit rating outlook by one rating agency and the financial impact of the Mizzou campus turmoil.

Middleton said budget cuts could do “real damage” to the system, particularly amid the efforts to address problems in Columbia.

“It’s difficult for me to imagine the damage that would be done to our university if we were to suffer significant cuts at this point in time,” Middleton said.

Brian Burnett, vice president and chief financial officer for the system, said the Columbia campus could be down 900 students next year, which would represent an estimated $20 million to $25 million drop in revenue from tuition.

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