Dennis Jones recalls the not-long-ago days when racially charged protests consumed the University of Missouri, when friends and family in his hometown of Dallas would call and ask, “How bad is it?” for him as a black man on campus.
“Absolutely, the reputation was harmed a bit,” the second-year law student said.
“But,” Jones said, “it’s going to take time for the image to change.”
Now, with state funding trimmed by a conservative legislature and ever fewer high school graduates headed to Columbia, the school is laying off people even as it pours money into promotion — and reputation repair — like never before.
“This is the worst enrollment performance of any flagship university in the country. That cannot continue,” Republican Gov. Eric Greitens said in a statement last week. “The University of Missouri has lacked strong leadership for far too long.”
MU’s bosses now need to appeal to prospective students of color after racist incidents — evidence of widespread problems or isolated incidents, depending on who’s telling the story. White kids may be reluctant to step into a place marked by fresh, if fading, racial controversy. Their parents, said people on and off campus, might resent university brass who they think “caved” to black athletes.
The day the football team threatened to skip a game scheduled for Arrowhead Stadium — the culmination of months, even generations, of simmering racial resentment at MU — virtually guaranteed that the heads of university brass would roll.
Last week, three-plus semesters after bullhorns blasted discontent at the administration, trustees finally found a permanent replacement for the deposed chancellor by naming State University of New York administrator Alexander Cartwright as the Columbia chancellor.
Still unfilled is the school’s position for a chief of diversity, equity and inclusion, a job created in response to the protests.
Many of the same actions taken to answer the complaints of protesters served to annoy legislators who already saw the school as a liberal sanctuary propped up by taxpayers.
All the while, would-be Tiger freshmen and their parents looked for a college with less drama.
It will take time, say people within and outside the ivory towers, to restore MU’s image.
In the fall of 2015, while many high school seniors mulled which college they’d go to, the Columbia campus arose as the latest Rorschach test of whether racism still flourished in America or if political correctness kept the country arguing over the sins of history.
In the end, MU System President Tim Wolfe resigned and then-Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin moved aside. Death threats targeting black student protesters poured in, including one that prompted an arrest.
“The university made a number of mistakes … and it has cost it dearly,” said state Sen. Caleb Rowden, a Republican from Columbia. Conservative lawmakers thought that, in particular, the school played too soft with a communications professor who at one point called for “muscle” to shield protesters from a student journalist.
Meanwhile, those high school seniors started looking elsewhere.
Freshman enrollment has been dropping at universities across the country, partly because of the growing cost of higher education and partly because of a dip in the college-age population.
But “the University of Missouri sticks out,” said Thomas Lindsay, director of the Center for Higher Education. “Its cause, the MU story, (is) those events of 2015.”
The fall-off in 2016 was dramatic. The school suddenly had 1,419 fewer freshmen, a drop of nearly 23 percent. The enrollment decline was reflected in nearly every demographic subgroup. In the last two years, MU has opened two dorms and closed seven.
Notably, the school lost ground in bringing African-American students into the fold. Their numbers grew slightly from 2013 to 2015. But the following year, their portion of the student body fell from 7.2 percent to 6.9 percent.
School officials said in early May that 4,009 freshman had paid deposits for the 2017 fall semester. That would reflect another 16 percent drop from 2016, or more than a third fewer incoming freshmen than before the 2015 protests.
Turmoil on a campus, said Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, could make students and families “do a double take” when looking for a suitable school.
“Being on the evening news for turmoil,” Nassirian said, “is definitely not a selling point.”
Recruiters have returned to campus with stories of families looking at Columbia anxiously after the 2015 protests.
“Prospective students are saying, ‘We want to go to college for an education and an eventual career. We don’t want to go to a place where people are fighting all the time,’ ” Lindsay said. “Students, when they decided not to apply to the University of Missouri, they knew in their bones that something is rotten.”
At the University of Missouri-Kansas City, officials saw an uptick in freshmen in 2016 that they attribute mostly to improved recruitment and a growing desire among students for an urban setting.
Jennifer DeHaemers, UMKC’s associate vice chancellor for student affairs and enrollment management, said a handful of families mentioned racial troubles in Columbia as a factor for looking at UMKC.
“Was there some impact for us? Possibly,” she said. “But it wasn’t significant.”
The vanishing students hit the university where it hurts. With the monumental drop in new freshmen, overall enrollment for the just-finished academic year was off 7 percent. That meant a loss of $16.6 million in revenue.
Meanwhile, the Missouri General Assembly cut spending to state universities about 6.6 percent. So now the school administration is slashing 12 percent — roughly $55 million — from the budget for the fiscal year that starts in July.
MU plans to wipe out 400 jobs. At least half of that will come from leaving unfilled jobs empty. A fourth will evaporate through retirements and nonrenewed contracts. The last 100 or so will go away through layoffs.
At the same time, Mizzou aims to bring back roughly $7 million in revenue with a 2.1 percent increase in tuition approved last week.
Students appear willing to pay more to get back what slow funding has cost them. This year, students agreed to pay more fees to restore longer library hours.
Even the financial ledger offers hope. Despite the racial tensions of 2015, Mizzou set a single-year fundraising record the next year, more than $170 million.
Still, MU is feeling a budget pinch, and pain for gown means trouble for the town.
“Some of our restaurants and bars may be down a little bit. Nothing overly major, but it’s a small concern,” said Matt McCormick, the president and CEO of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce.
Across the Columbia economy, reminders pop up that the Tigers rule. Except when they don’t. The football team has struggled to compete in the Southeastern Conference. The basketball team has won more pity than games in recent years.
“For the first time in 14 years,” said Paul Huesgen, the bar manager for Flat Branch Pub & Brewing, “weekends without football are busier than weekends with them.”
In response to the turmoil, MU produced a TV ad with the slogan “Our Time to Lead.” The university now plugs itself in digital ads, on billboards and in airports.
In all, about $1 million has been spent marketing the university in the last 18 months. It’s too early to tell if the push will overcome anxiety about a campus with bad publicity over race.
“For many years … there wasn’t a need to invest in marketing,” said Jennifer Hollingshead, interim vice chancellor for marketing and communications. “After 2015, that changed.”
In the meantime, she said, the university is using focus groups, surveys and detailed interviews with its “stakeholders” to better understand the public perception of the school in the wake of the rotten headlines of 2015.
Administrators say they may yet hire an outside firm to guide them in restoring the school’s brand.
“We are continuing to tell our story,” said school spokesman Christian Basi. “We educate future leaders, do groundbreaking research, economic development and create jobs.”
New money is pouring in for a better football stadium, including an anonymous $1.2 million gift this month. In March, Mizzou landed a hot-ticket basketball coach. In April, the hoops team signed a top high school prospect.
Some students say that tensions have faded and they’re pleased with campus life. But they’re still concerned.
“I feel like things are OK,” said Jenny Dashner, a sophomore from St. Charles. “I worry about (the school’s) reputation and that people will not want to come here.”