University of Missouri System President Mun Choi was in Chillicothe Thursday as part of a northwest Missouri outreach tour, meeting with community and business leaders, former curators, local legislators, alumni and donors.
University of Missouri System President Mun Choi was in Chillicothe Thursday as part of a northwest Missouri outreach tour, meeting with community and business leaders, former curators, local legislators, alumni and donors. Choi is the 24th president of the UM system, having accepted the position about a year ago and beginning his duties in March. He knew coming into the position that the system faced significant challenges. Enrollment was down, state funding was down, and the system was still recovering from racially-spurred protests at its Columbia campus in 2015. “It’s going to take some work, but I am confident we will address the challenges,” Choi told those gathered in the meeting room of Hedrick Medical Center Thursday. “Mizzou is a world class university that has gone through so many important events that could have rocked it off its foundation,” he said, noting that despite the Civil War, the world wars, and financial challenges the system still survived. He said that moving forward will take careful coordination in making the right decisions to best utilize state and tuition funds. Among those attending Thursday’s meeting was Livingston County Presiding Commissioner Ed Douglas, who is also president of the Chillicothe Education Foundation, which financially supports local education efforts. Among the foundation’s activities: purchasing 60 acres north of the high school and helping pass a bond issue to build a new elementary school on this land, raising money for a $4 million stadium, providing financial awards for teachers and implementing financial recruitment tools. “We are very committed to education,” Douglas said. “We understand the importance of the University of Missouri System to our area of our state.” Choi was introduced to the local group by Ed Turner, of Chillicothe, former University of Missouri curator. “We are so proud to have him part of our team at the university system,” Turner said. Dr. David Russell, chief of staff for the University of Missouri System, accompanied Choi on his Chillicothe visit. The duo also visited Trenton, Maryville and St. Joseph last week. Choi was born in South Korea and moved with his father, mother and three younger sisters to Akron, Ohio, in 1973 when he was 9 years old. His father owned and operated a karate uniform manufacturing business which consisted of one sewing machine, and one seamstress (who was Choi’s mother). The family later moved to Chicago where the business further prospered. The business continues today and is operated by Choi’s sisters. Choi said the lessons he learned from his father are ones that he tries to impress upon his own children and the students at the university: treat people well, work hard, and be resilient. “That’s his life in a microcosm,” Choi said of his father. “Here’s a man and a wife, who didn’t speak a word of English, but they decided to give up everything that they have in Korea so they can make a better life for their children.” Choi came to Missouri after having served as dean of engineering for five years and provost for four years at the University of Connecticut. His goals as president of the University of Missouri System include focusing on excellence, developing a new strategic plan that re-emphasizes the university’s land grant status, focusing on value and making higher education more affordable. Being able to reach those goals will involve evaluating current programs and reallocating resources to programs that are deemed critically important. “We have so many programs that we have accumulated in the 178-year history of Mizzou that you question why are we still doing these programs,” Choi said. “We need to evaluate and say, ‘given the precious resources we can no longer support those programs.’ Instead, we need to reallocate those resources to support programs that are critically important and where there is great demand.” Choi said that over the next six months, the university will be developing a new strategic plan that focuses on excellence and re-emphasizes its role as a land grant university through education, research and engagement to the citizens of Missouri. The vision includes making the system the University for Missouri, rather than of Missouri. To do that, the president said, the university needs to have programs that increase student success. This includes graduation rates, job placement, attendance at graduate and professional schools, and debt at graduation as well as loan default rates. Choi also would like to pursue making higher education more affordable. He stated that although some students don’t return after their freshman year because of academic reasons, a significant number don’t return because of financial issues. “We need to focus on creating additional scholarships,” he said. The president also addressed the need to increase research opportunities. “We have a lot to offer, but we have not, as a university, really focused on competing at the national level,” Choi said. The University of Missouri currently has approximately $120 million at the Columbia campus in federal research grants, he said, which is about half or a third of what some other universities receive. There’s a multiplier effect when federally-funded research conducted at the university results in commercial products being developed. Because of state funding cuts, the total number of faculty members who conduct research has decreased from 1,000 to 900 at the university over the past five years. Choi said the university needs to be strategic about its choices and grow that research component. Another focus of the president is to engage with the community – throughout all of Missouri – and not just Kansas City, St. Louis and Columbia. “We need to demonstrate the tremendous value we have,” he said. “It’s not just through the extension program. There is a lot that we provide.” Choi stated that the university has retained the consulting services of Tripp Umbach to do an economic assessment of the four campuses to see what value the system provides. “My estimation is that we provide at least $3.5 billion in economic value to the state of Missouri each year,” he said. “We receive about $400 million of support so the return on investment is quite significant.” It is the university’s job to be proactive and share its message and demonstrate its value wherever it can and continue developing programs that bring value back to the community, he said. “So, when we go through unfortunate periods like what we had in 2015, the community says, ‘yeah, you know, there are some things they could have done better, but I still believe in that university. Look at what they are doing for my community here.’” Choi said that this year has the smallest incoming class of freshmen in about 15 years, with approximately 4,000 freshmen enrolled. In fall 2014, the year before the protest, the university welcomed 6,500 freshmen.