University of Missouri
Credit: iStock

For the last several decades, the University of Missouri, the state’s flagship research institution, has been known mostly for its football team and prestigious journalism program. But in 2015, it was thrust into the national spotlight when a series of racist and anti-Semitic events took place on its campus. A group of young people shouted racial slurs at the student body president; “heil” was scrawled in charcoal on the wall of a residence hall; and a swastika was smeared with feces in a dormitory.

The events spurred a protest movement called Concerned Student 1950, named after the year the university began admitting black students. Tensions escalated when a graduate student began a hunger strike, demanding that the president of the University of Missouri System, Tim Wolfe, resign. Students camped out to support the student and the Mizzou football team threatened to boycott the rest of the season. The day after the football team took a stance, legislators called for Wolfe’s resignation, too. The next day, he stepped down.

Along with the school’s tarnished reputation came a drop in enrolment, and with the drop in enrolment came a budget squeeze. Two years after the protests, the freshman class had shrunk by 35 percent, the school had closed seven dormitories, and cut 400 faculty and staff positions.

Since then, the university hired a new chancellor, Alexander Cartwright, who has worked to restore the school’s standing. In that capacity, he has also focused on the role public university systems can play in its home state, with a stated desire to increase retention and graduation rates for low-income and first-generation students, which the Washington Monthly measures in our annual college rankings (the 2019 rankings will come out online August 26).

The Monthly’s Editor in Chief Paul Glastris, who attended the University of Missouri his freshmen year, recently sat down with Cartwright and George Smith, a Mizzou chemistry professor and 2018 Nobel Prize winner to discuss school’s efforts to transform itself.

Below is an edited and condensed version of that conversation. 

Glastris: The unfortunate racial incidents. How have you coped with that?

Cartwright: To give you the short answer, I think it’s better that others say how they think we’re doing. I think we’ve made a lot of progress, is what I will say. And I think that’s being recognized. We still have more we want to do, but I think we’ve made a lot of progress and we’re on the right path towards doing even doing more.

Glastris: Looking at how you stacked up in our 2018 College Guide rankings, you have some good numbers on research, which makes sense. You don’t do so well on our measures of upward mobility, I have to say. [University of Missouri—Columbia was ranked 89th for research and 17th for service out of 316 national universities in the Monthly’s 2018 college rankings. It was ranked 196th for social mobility.]

Smith: Well, it is a problem. In biology, we actually have programs trying to help those students to stay in the program, but many of them end up going to other programs, like applied health sciences, that type of thing. I don’t know why we do worse than others.

Cartwright: I know the numbers, I know where we are on these things, and it is a point of emphasis for us because I want to increase first-gen completion rates—because I was first-gen also. We implemented “land-grant scholarships.” This means, if you are Pell-eligible and you come to our institution, we guarantee that whatever funding you receive we’re going to fill the gap for tuition and fees, and you don’t pay anything. We do want to increase that social mobility, we want to make sure that we’re supporting those students who need it, and those students are coming from all around the state. They’re coming from rural areas, urban areas, and that is part of what we’re focused on. So these numbers are going to change.

Glastris: Midwest research universities are anchored institutions of Midwest states and cities in ways that’s not really the same in other places. Big public land-grant schools are having difficulty holding on to their talent, getting the best talent, having the facilities, having the income, the grants, the state funding, the federal funding. How are you doing?

Cartwright: We went through a period where our enrolment went down quite a bit. And last year our freshman class was 4,134, and this year we’re at 4,696, and we’re trending up again. Vice Chancellor Marshall Stewart went around the state and surveyed all the different counties, had lots of conversations with people about what they’re looking for, and three topics came out in terms of education, health, and economy. So he’s been looking at his extension operation and assuring they have access to specialists in each county and people can come to the extension and really get help in those three areas.

Glastris: What happens at an extension office?

Cartwright: We have one in every county. The expectation is that we take all of the work that we’re doing in agriculture and other areas and make that accessible to all of the farmers and everybody, ranchers, throughout the state. You have a lot of challenges. There’s lots of small, down to medium, and actually some large farms, but they might need some help with understanding how to structure what they’re doing financially. Right? And we will go out, we’ll work with them. And that’s part of what we do as an institution. I think that’s such a valuable role for a midwestern university. For us, it was a lot about telling that story of here’s what we can do.

Glastris: What’s the connection between the University of Missouri and your state community college systems?

Cartwright: We are looking at how we can do even more with community colleges, we set up a program with Moberly Area Community College just north of us, and it’s sort of dual-admission. They’re admitted to both programs. It’s building that pipeline that they’re taking courses simultaneously at both institutions and they already know that they’re going to be coming to Mizzou. A lot of it is about the belief that you can do this, and having that connection that they can see themselves already at the university makes a huge difference.

Glastris: Mizzou is one of the premier research universities in the country. It’s not in the top 10, but it’s certainly in the top 50. It produces, obviously, Nobel Prize winners. Is it getting easier to perform at the top of the ranks in research at Mizzou, or harder, and if so, why?

Smith: You’re asking someone who actually would not have been ranked top until this prize. I mean, I had a very average sort of scientific career at Mizzou. I did one thing that was recognized for that prize, but overall it was a pretty average career. I think we have to own up to that it’s very competitive enterprise—the scientific enterprise, because we don’t really support it nationally to a sufficient extent to support a real community. We rely on states to pick up the slack, to bolster the scientific community. The state can support it. I mean, Missouri may not be Seattle, but it certainly is wealthy enough to support a really vigorous state system and not have students paying outrageous prices for tuition.

Glastris: And you think it could be doing a better job?

Smith: If we had sufficient state support, I think we could do a much better job.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. A former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, he is writing a book on America’s involvement in the Greek War of Independence.