The University of Missouri board of curators introduced the system’s new president, Mun Choi, to faculty, students and the leaders of the four campuses during a ceremony Wednesday morning in Jefferson City.
Choi, provost at the University of Connecticut, was selected from among three finalists after a nine-month search for a new president to lead the UM System, which has campuses in Kansas City, St. Louis, Rolla and Columbia.
“Dr. Choi is a man of vision, strategic thinking and integrity, an excellent communicator who is equally effective and comfortable with faculty, staff, donors, legislators and students,” said Pam Henrickson, chairwoman of the UM System board of curators. She said that “his leadership has been instrumental in growing UConn’s stature in the areas of research, teaching and outreach, and he is uniquely qualified to lead the UM System to greater heights as its 24th president.”
Choi will continue in his position at UConn until Feb. 1 and begin his new job as UM president on March 1.
“I am so excited to be in Missouri, and I’m honored and humbled to serve the University of Missouri System,” Choi said. “I appreciate the confidence you have put in me.”
Choi talked about developing a “collective vision” by spending time meeting with the state elected officials, visiting with area businesses and hearing from members of the university community.
“The voices of faculty, students and staff — the heart and soul of the institution — matter greatly to me,” Choi said.
Choi, the first UM System president of Asian-American heritage, replaces Tim Wolfe, who resigned last November under a national spotlight following student protests, a student hunger strike and claims that Wolfe had failed to take action against multiple displays of racism at MU, the system’s flagship campus in Columbia.
Mizzou’s football team threatened to boycott a game. At the same time, MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin resigned under pressure from faculty and students who were dissatisfied with his leadership.
In addition to talking about furthering the university’s commitments to research, service and economic development in the state, Choi said in his remarks Wednesday morning that it is “critical to create an environment that is welcoming and inclusive and collegiate” at the university.
Since last November, Michael Middleton has been serving as interim president of the UM System. This morning, before introducing Choi, Henrickson thanked Middleton for his service, saying he stepped up “at exactly the time when your university needed you most, at a most historic and challenging moment. We owe you our deepest gratitude.”
Hank Foley is serving as interim chancellor of the Columbia campus.
When the university began its presidential search in February, it went looking for a leader who was expected to play a major role in mending damage done to MU last year.
“I am very happy with the new president,” said curator John Phillips, a Kansas City lawyer.
“He’s very personable, direct, quite intelligent, and I think he is a good communicator,” Phillips said. “Personally, that is very important to me. And he proved to be a good listener in our interview. I voted for him.”
Phillips said curators were looking for a candidate with leadership background in advancing research, in fundraising in the private sector and at the state level, and promoting diversity, equity and inclusion.
Choi “excelled in all of these areas,” Phillips said.
Born in South Korea, Choi came to the U.S. as a child. As a young man, he worked in his family’s successful business in Chicago and later graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a bachelor’s degree in general engineering in 1987. He later earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in mechanical and aerospace engineering from Princeton University.
Choi has served as UConn provost, overseeing academic affairs, since December 2012. He came to UConn as dean of engineering and a professor of mechanical engineering in 2008. Choi is known for having more than 20 years of experience in developing nationally competitive innovative research programs.
In the last four years at UConn, Choi has overseen a budget of $700 million while working with 1,500 full-time faculty, 31,000 students and 2,000 staff across 12 schools and colleges, including schools of medicine, dental medicine and law. Under his leadership, UConn developed several innovative new programs that have resulted in enrollment growth.
As engineering dean, Choi was credited with boosting undergraduate applications to the department by 124 percent, and the number of undergraduate degrees earned increased by 64 percent. In addition, research grants increased by 143 percent.
“I look forward to welcoming Dr. Choi to Missouri and to working closely with him to enhance the value that Kansas City’s university, and the entire UM System, bring to our community and our state,” said Leo Morton, chancellor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“The process employed by the search committee and the curators has worked well, and I will be introducing Dr. Choi to our community as an experienced and highly capable partner in our efforts to move our community forward.”
Rep. David Wood, a Republican from Versailles who serves as vice chairman of the legislature’s joint committee on education, said he was pleased to hear Choi talking about the need for university leadership to improve communication with Missouri lawmakers.
“Whoever was going to be the next president needs to work with the legislature closely,” Wood said. “From what I understand in conversations this morning, he did a good job of that in Connecticut. I certainly hope that’s something he’s willing to continue here.”
In response to questions about building a working relationship with Missouri lawmakers, Choi said, “Elected officials are tremendous stewards of public resources who try to do the best for the citizens of the state.”
He said, “First thing I have to do is listen. To listen to their point of view and find out where we can find common ground when it comes to higher education.”
MU faculty were pleased to hear Choi said he will seek their input, and they said they’re happy curators chose someone from academia rather than a business executive.
“From the very beginning of this search process, faculty made it very clear that we wanted a president who had significant experience in running a university,” said Ben Trachtenberg, MU Faculty Council president.
Choi said he understands “the aspirations and the struggles of faculty members.” And, he added, “I understand what it’s like to provide an outstanding education for our students. Having that understanding brings a new perspective to this position of system president.”
The last two presidents to lead the university system — Gary Forsee and then Wolfe — had been business executives before taking the reins.
Trachtenberg said faculty now will be eager to see what Choi does about hiring a permanent chancellor for the MU campus.
Since Foley has been the interim chancellor, he has focused on restoring calm after the protests and resignations, working to salvage the university’s tarnished brand by pushing MU advancements in research into the news, and building up the bruised relationship between the university and Missouri lawmakers.
He’s had to deal with a drop in enrollment and the revenue loss that caused, and the university has been operating for some time with a significant number of administrative vacancies filled by people with “interim” in front of their title.
“Now that we have a permanent president, certain hard decisions can be made,” Trachtenberg said.
One of the new president’s duties will be to hire a permanent chancellor at MU. But Phillips said curators have not discussed what a search to fill that position will look like.
No matter how it looks though, “We would expect to include Dr. Foley in that search,” Phillips said.
The University of Missouri System, with 77,700 students enrolled, is more than twice the size of the University of Connecticut system. And while the UM System is a member of the Association of American Universities — which has 62 leading public and private research universities as members — UConn is not.
In a letter to faculty, students and staff, University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst said that while UConn is “sorry to lose a terrific Provost, trusted colleague, and great friend, I also know how much this advancement means to Mun and his family, and we wish them all the best.”
She said, “Mun is a talented and tenacious leader, so it comes as no surprise that other high quality institutions would seek him out. Any university would be lucky to have him.”
Choi answered several other questions Wednesday from the audience and media:
On the unrest last fall on the Mizzou campus, Choi said:
“The incidents that have happened are not unique to the University of Missouri. Recognizing that there are many great individuals here who care about the institution and want to move it forward, I felt this was a great opportunity for me to come and work with all the stakeholders to effect some positive changes. In my 24-year career in academia, I’ve always developed new programs that have provided opportunities, pipeline development for underrepresented minority students.”
On Melissa Click, the former MU communications professor who was fired after calling for “muscle” to remove a student photographer who was documenting campus protests:
“It’s critical for all of us to have a balance between free speech and academic freedom, but also appropriate ways to communicate that are inclusive, collegial and, most importantly, respectful.”
On graduate students’ attempts to unionize:
“Graduate students are the lifeblood of a research university. Their contribution, working with our faculty members, is critical for a university like the University of Missouri System. I’d have to understand more about the situation here at the University of Missouri System before making a definitive answer.”