Barbara Shelly

Barbara Shelly: Mizzou may have caught a break with interim chancellor Hank Foley

Interim Chancellor Hank Foley, seen here delivering his State of the University address in Columbia, is working to repair multiple broken relationships.
Interim Chancellor Hank Foley, seen here delivering his State of the University address in Columbia, is working to repair multiple broken relationships. The Associated Press

Interim University of Missouri Chancellor Hank Foley joked during his “State of the University” speech last week that he might only get one shot at delivering the annual address, so he’d better make it count.

And he did. The speech was a bit of a stemwinder, lasting more than an hour, but Foley had a lot to say. He addressed the university’s high-profile challenges squarely and bravely, and challenged an audience in Mizzou’s Memorial Union to “step up our game.”

In the mess that has become the University of Missouri system governance, Foley has emerged as a bright spot. Thrust into the chancellor’s job on short notice on Nov. 12 after a series of crises forced the departures of system President Tim Wolfe and MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin, he is receiving strong reviews for openness and smart management.

“The reaction in general is pretty positive,” said Ben Trachtenberg, chair of MU’s Faculty Council on University Policy. “People are cautiously optimistic that his heart is in the right place and they want him to succeed.”

Foley has won points for calming discontent among graduate assistants, who balked last year about low stipends and the announced removal of health benefits. He has begun inviting students to “chat with the chancellor” on Friday afternoons. And he’s been walking the halls of the Missouri Capitol, trying to repair relations with lawmakers.

Foley is no stranger to campus upheaval. He was Penn State’s executive vice president for research and dean of its graduate school when multiple child sexual abuse charges against a former assistant football coach ripped that campus apart. In June 2013 he became the University of Missouri system’s executive vice president for academic affairs.

In his speech, Foley stressed the need for MU and all public universities to adapt quickly to changing times and stresses.

“The tension around race relations and the campus climate shows that we need to do more to be fully inclusive,” he said. “When I refer to student expectations, though, I am not speaking about just African American and other underrepresented students; I am speaking about all expectations of all students. Students do have much higher expectations of the experience of university life than do many of us who went to college decades ago.”

He acknowledged the rift between the Missouri General Assembly and the University of Missouri system, especially the Columbia campus.

“I know that the State of Missouri is and always has been our greatest benefactor. I never take this for granted, and none of us should. So, if at times our legislators become exasperated with us, as they are these days, let’s not be too surprised. Let’s do better. Let’s regain their trust and respect.”

He spoke about the contract between the state and its land grant universities, and talked about the many ways MU returns the taxpayer dollars it receives back to the community in the form of medical discoveries, patents, new businesses and jobs.

Addressing Missouri citizens, he said, “I know we don’t always make you proud. I wish we did, but if you look beyond the headlines, you’ll see much for you to be very proud of, year in and year out.”

And to the campus community: “We’re far from perfect, but our ideals are the right ideals. Let’s live up to them. Let’s step up our game.”

Foley’s speech unfortunately was squashed between two thunder-stealing events.

Earlier in the day, an email that Tim Wolfe, the former university system president, had written to presumed supporters burst into open circulation and commanded the limelight.

And later that evening the system’s Board of Curators yielded to pressure from legislators and suspended controversial communications professor Melissa Click, despite Foley’s assertion that the university should follow its established personnel procedures.

Curator Yvonne Sparks of St. Louis resigned that same night, and officials announced the resignation of curator David Steward of St. Louis this week. A third curator, Ann Covington, resigned in November. That leaves a third of the seats on the nine-member board vacant, at a time when curators must seek a permanent replacement for Wolfe as system president.

In the midst of the uncertainty, Foley told his audience last week that he’d like to remain as chancellor.

“I love Mizzou and I would love to do this job,” he said. “But that said, that’s for you all to decide, not me.”

Given all that’s gone on over the past few months, it seems likely and proper that Foley should get a chance at a second annual address next year. Perhaps calmer circumstances will allow it to be a bit shorter.