Barbara Shelly

Barbara Shelly: MU chancellor R. Bowen Loftin is learning the high price of appeasement

In better times, only 21 months ago, new University of Missouri chancellor R. Bowen Loftin was introduced during a timeout of a basketball game at Mizzou Arena.
In better times, only 21 months ago, new University of Missouri chancellor R. Bowen Loftin was introduced during a timeout of a basketball game at Mizzou Arena.

The faculty of the University of Missouri’s English Department voted overwhelmingly this week to express no confidence in the leadership of MU chancellor R. Bowen Loftin.

“While we recognize Chancellor Loftin’s service, his twenty-one month tenure has been marked by dereliction of duty in maintaining the quality and reputation of graduate education, violations of the bedrock principle of shared governance, and failure to defend the University’s educational mission against outside political pressure,” the professors said in a statement calling upon university system president Tim Wolfe to replace Loftin.

This isn’t just a case of a few faculty members nursing a grievance. The Columbia campus is roiling, but neither Loftin nor Wolfe seem to know how to handle crises as diverse as black students alleging racism and graduate students protesting cuts in benefits.

And with a new legislative session approaching and 2016 statewide campaigns cranking up, the political pressure the professors spoke of is only going to grow.

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Loftin made a huge mistake in September when he caved in to legislative bullying and revoked admitting privileges at MU’s hospital for a doctor who also performs non-surgical abortions at a nearly Planned Parenthood clinic. The admitting privileges are necessary for the clinic to comply with state law.

The chancellor also agreed to the cancellation of 10 contracts with Planned Parenthood for nursing and medical students to complete clinical hours at its health care facilities.

The chancellor’s appeasement had the effect of a sugar rush on anti-abortion lawmakers. They scrambled for more. This week brought a new attack by Missouri Sen. Kurt Schaefer, a candidate for Missouri attorney general who believes his role as Senate appropriations chairman has bestowed him with dictatorial powers.

Once a strong supporter of the university system, the senator from Columbia now spends a great deal of time sniffing out connections between the university system and Planned Parenthood. Loftin was subjected to hostile interrogations from Schaefer’s “sanctity of life” committee shortly before he canceled the clinical contracts and the doctor’s admitting privileges.

Now Schaefer is demanding documents related to a research project in which a doctoral student in the university’s School of Social Work is gauging the impact of Missouri’s new law requiring women to wait 72 hours before obtaining an abortion.

Schaefer had gotten hold of a consent form the student designed for women who agreed to participate in the study. The form is professionally drafted, assuring women that their participation is voluntary and confidential.

It also includes this sentence: “The information that you provide may help Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri improve its services to better meet the needs of women seeking abortions.”

That was all Schaefer needed to accuse the university and everyone connected with the study of violating a Missouri statute that bans state funds from being used to perform an abortion or encourage or counsel a woman to terminate a pregnancy. To him, the study looks like a “marketing aid” for Planned Parenthood.

That assertion is ridiculous. The study, which has undergone a rigorous academic review, is designed to assess whether the extended waiting period discourages women from having abortions. Missouri being the first state to pass such a draconian law, you would think lawmakers would find that information valuable. If the waiting period turns out to be a disincentive, they can use the study for bragging rights.

Schaefer’s attack is a broadside on academic freedom. If Loftin won’t draw the line this time, he has no business leading a major university.

Things will get nasty. Schaefer has threatened to cut the university’s budget if leaders don’t do his bidding.

But to allow a politician to shut down a research project would undermine the foundation of any university and leave MU even more vulnerable.

Already, some extremist members of the Missouri General Assembly and candidates for office have their sights on a longtime embryonic stem cell research project taking place at the university. Missouri Right to Life, the influential anti-abortion group, has falsely compared research on microscopic embryonic cells to the destruction of human life.

I don’t claim to know what the future holds for Loftin or Wolfe, who reportedly are hopelessly at odds. But if they care about the future of the University of Missouri they will tell Schaefer and the other meddlers to keep their power-hungry hands away from academic research.