- Associated Press - Thursday, February 4, 2016

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) - Missouri’s Democratic governor pledged Thursday to circumvent the Republican-led Legislature if needed to fill vacancies on the board that oversees the state’s flagship university, further escalating the tensions of legislators already frustrated about the handling of racial issues that culminated in the resignations of the system president and campus chancellor.

The only two black members of the Board of Curators, which runs the University of Missouri’s four-campus system, resigned last week amid the turmoil. That left three of the nine seats on the board vacant, but GOP leaders have said they have no interest in filling the vacancies before next year, when Gov. Jay Nixon is out of office.

“We’re not in a hurry to do anything for the University of Missouri,” said Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard.

Speaking to reporters during an Associated Press and Missouri Press Association event at the governor’s mansion, Nixon said he would “not hesitate at all to make interim appointments” when legislators are out of session.

Tensions with the Legislature started building in the summer, when the University of Missouri and Republican lawmakers butted heads over the Columbia school’s ties to a local Planned Parenthood clinic that enabled the center to start providing medication-induced abortions.

Then in November, the Columbia campus was the site of protests that resonated across the nation over what activists said was administrators’ indifference to racial issues. The Columbia chancellor and system president resigned after the protests escalated, including one student’s hunger strike and an announcement by members of the football team that they would refuse to play. One Republican lawmaker proposed but later withdrew a bill to strip scholarships from college athletes who refuse to play.

Legislators had more criticism last week when the Board of Curators suspended - but didn’t fire - assistant communications professor Melissa Click, seen in a video asking for “muscle” to help remove a student videographer from a protest site on campus. More than 100 lawmakers have called for her firing.

Click, who reached a deal with prosecutors to do community service instead of facing charges, didn’t return messages Thursday from the AP seeking comment.

“We want to see the university in a more stable place and in a place where we’re seeing more positive stories coming out of Columbia than more sort of controversy and division,” GOP House Speaker Todd Richardson said last week.

Some lawmakers also took issue with a letter circulated by the former system president, Tim Wolfe, that argued the “University of Missouri is under attack and current leadership from the board on down is frozen.”

Rep. Caleb Jones, a Republican who represents Columbia, said it looked like an attempt to “armchair quarterback.”

Current curators Phillip Snowden and David Steelman declined to comment to an AP reporter Thursday on the system’s relationship with the Legislature, which Richard described as “terrible.”

“It’s apparent to me that no one is in charge,” Richard said Thursday during the press event at the governor’s mansion. “So we’ll be in charge.”

Richard has said the University of Missouri is primed for a budgetary “haircut,” and last week said that there will be a serious discussion of its budget.

Lawmaker criticism extends beyond the Columbia campus. Richardson said some are upset that the University of Missouri-St. Louis recently bought a public golf course. Mistrust of how state money is spent is at such a high that a Senate Republican proposed a yearly state audit of the entire system.

System spokesman John Fougere said officials have been “working tirelessly with our state legislators to rebuild confidence with them in the University of Missouri System.” In a House committee hearing Wednesday on state funding for public colleges and universities, the system’s interim President Mike Middleton tried to assure lawmakers that their concerns are being addressed while urging them not to cut funding.

Middleton cited Click’s suspension, the creation of a free-speech task force and work on diversity initiatives, among other actions.

“I certainly hear your concerns and take them very seriously,” Middleton said.

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Ballentine reported from Jefferson City.

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