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Missteps, not student revolt, led to Mizzou chancellor's demise

Missteps, not student revolt, led to Mizzou chancellor's demise

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R. Bowen Loftin, Tim Wolfe

University of Missouri President Timothy M. Wolfe (left) and University of Missouri Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin participate in a news conference Friday, April 11, 2014, in Rolla, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Even as it became clear Monday morning that Timothy M. Wolfe would not stay on as president of the University of Missouri System, he continued to have broad support from his bosses, the University of Missouri Board of Curators.

That was true up until the moment he resigned. Multiple people with knowledge of the situation say the curators were ready to stand behind Wolfe even as he’d become the focus of intense student outrage over his perceived failure to adequately respond to racist incidents on campus.

Ultimately, Wolfe resigned voluntarily, walking away from his job without a severance package, an indication that he wasn’t forced out by the curators.

The same can’t be said for University of Missouri-Columbia Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin.

Just hours after Wolfe’s resignation, the board voted to assign Loftin to a lesser role — a less messy way of firing someone who’s still under contract.

Outside of Columbia, the perception is that both leaders were victims of the same student revolt. But people on campus point out the key differences behind their respective exits.

Wolfe — who was hired in 2011 on the strength of his business career — was done in relatively swiftly by an activist group, a student on a hunger strike and a pledge from the football team not to take the field again until he resigned.

Loftin’s demise was longer in the making. Over time, he made a series of missteps, making enemies out of deans, faculty and graduate students before the curators ultimately decided it was time to move on.

“People say it was about the students, but his undoing was really about the faculty,” one university leader said on the condition of anonymity.

Three other leaders also said privately Loftin’s troubles mounted over time. Loftin, they said, frequently blindsided the curators with his decision making, stirring up controversies then having to backtrack.

His legacy, they said, is that of a master of public relations but a disaster in management.

The fact that anger over a series of racial incidents on Loftin’s campus, bounced off him and stuck to Wolfe, is a testament to Loftin’s political maneuvering, they said.

The fact that he couldn’t persuade the curators to keep him in his job is evidence of his abrasive leadership style.

EARLY STUMBLES

Some people on campus started sensing trouble for Loftin dating back to last year during the height of the Ferguson protests.

He came from Texas A&M University where he had recently stepped down as president to return to teaching.Not long after filling the Mizzou post in 2014, he was criticized for doing only the minimum — showing up to rallies, but speaking without conviction, and seeming more interested in scrolling through his phone than participating in discussions.

The perception on campus, however, is that Loftin recovered from those early stumbles, and has since been very adept in relating to students.

“That’s really his strength,” Ben Trachtenberg, chairman of MU’s Faculty Council said. “He’s built up his credibility with students. He’s listened and you get a sense that he’s sincere.”

But the skill he’s shown in relating to students has been absent in his relationships with others on campus.

Earlier this year, Loftin angered Mizzou’s graduate assistants when the university stripped them of their health insurance subsidies and scaled back their tuition waivers, just before the start of the school year.

Graduate assistants conduct research, grade papers and teach classes. They take the burden off of full-time faculty and are considered indispensable to a well-functioning university.

Loftin eventually backtracked, restoring the subsidies and extending the tuition waivers for another year. But there’s been no movement on restoring the affordable housing and child care graduate assistants used to enjoy.

Loftin’s next two controversies came in September when MU School of Medicine Dean Patrick Delafontaine abruptly resigned after less than a year on the job.

No explanation has been given for his sudden departure, but it’s believed that personality clashes between the two men led Delafontaine to step down.

The same month, Loftin discontinued the clinical privileges for a Planned Parenthood physician and terminated multiple relationships with different Planned Parenthood affiliates.

The moves came after Loftin took heavy criticism from conservative members of Missouri’s Legislature amid national controversies over the nonprofit’s handling of fetal tissue. On campus, the perception was that Loftin caved to political pressure.

Later, Mizzou restored some clinical privileges to three nursing students to work with Planned Parenthood on a limited basis.

Those missteps, plus a general feeling among some that Loftin is an ineffective manager, resulted in members of the MU’s English Department issuing a vote of no confidence in Loftin earlier this month.

The Faculty Council also piled on, issuing a public letter of concern regarding Loftin.

“We had concerns about his leadership,” Faculty Council member Martha Steffens said.

TWO EXITS

Monday morning’s curators meeting opened with Wolfe’s abrupt announcement of his resignation. But later, as the curators met behind closed doors, Wolfe remained in the room.

In what probably sealed Loftin’s fate, all nine of MU’s sitting deans sent a letter to the board of curators — revealing it to the public even as curators met. The letter asked for Loftin’s resignation over what the deans described as the “chancellor’s failed leadership.”

Among their complaints was Loftin’s role in “creating a toxic environment through threat, fear and intimidation.”

It’s a stark contrast to the perception Loftin has created publicly as the genial bow-tied chancellor, prone to popping up at social events and known for taking selfies with students.

The letter from the deans likely gave the curators the cover they sought to move Loftin out of the chancellor’s seat, and into some unspecified research role beginning in January.

“It was the deans that did him in,” one university leader said.

Even so, on Monday, after Wolfe’s expected resignation, it was believed by some that Loftin would be spared. The thinking was that he’d used his public relations prowess in successfully outmaneuvering Wolfe.

People who know the two said their relationship was lukewarm at best.

As the marathon closed-door session progressed, Loftin’s luck turned.

The chancellor was summoned to appear at the meeting Monday afternoon, entering through the back door.

He emerged later, stripped of his title.

More Mizzou coverage:

Mizzou professor tells students he is quitting over decision to hold exam as racial tensions boil

Hashtag offers glimpse into what some college students experience

Mizzou protesters vow to carry on amid the aftershocks of upheaval

Lake Saint Louis man, 19, charged with making online threat against Mizzou

Pinkel distances himself from protests

Professor apologizes for bullying student photographer

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Koran Addo is a reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Related to this story

Timothy M. Wolfe, former University of Missouri System president, may have legitimate complaints about how his tenure at the university ended, but a vitriolic message to friends and donors will not help heal the rupture. In fact, his rambling Jan. 19 email message, reported by the Post-Dispatch's Koran Addo on Wednesday, reads as an unprofessional and heavy-handed attempt to blame everyone but himself.

For a university system trying to send a message about inclusion and diversity, a photo of the University of Missouri Board of Curators defies the best public relations effort the university can muster.

The photo shows a group of six, white people of a certain age. One is a woman. The photo doesn't show it, but they're all lawyers. This is the board that for the foreseeable future will determine how higher education progresses at the state's signature land-grant university and three other campuses in the system.

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