University of Missouri System President Mun Choi assumed the duties of chancellor of the Columbia campus Thursday after Alexander Cartwright resigned to be president of the University of Central Florida.


The Board of Curators voted unanimously in a closed session Wednesday to combine the duties of the two offices — at least on an interim basis — a news release from the university stated.


Cartwright’s last day at the university was Wednesday.


There will be no immediate search for a replacement, the release said. Instead, the curators will consider whether to make the arrangement permanent.


"We are taking this action to maintain critical leadership at Mizzou and its continued excellence among the nation’s leading research institutions," Julia Brncic, board chair, said in the release. "During this time of unprecedented challenges, it is important that our continuity of proven leadership is enabled for swift and efficient actions that benefit our students, faculty, staff and communities."


The curators believe Choi has led the system and its four universities through several transformative projects, the release said, citing the NextGen Precision Health Initiative, an expansion of online learning, and finding efficiencies across the system.


"I am committed to ensuring continuity of leadership at Mizzou at a time when partnership and collaboration among all four of our universities is more essential than ever — not only for our institutions, but also for our state," Choi said in the release.


How long Choi will have the combined roles depends on whether it seems to be the correct way to organize the university, Brncic and Choi said during an online conversation with reporters.


Choi will delegate some of the responsibilities of each job to others and concentrate on priorities, he said.


"The board will tell me how I am doing in that regard," he said.


State Rep. Kip Kendrick, D-Columbia, said he sees the move as a reaction to the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.


"It makes a lot of sense, especially in this time of uncertainty, to consolidate the two positions and then re-evaluate them down the road once we return to more normal times," he said.


The appointment is effective immediately. Choi’s salary will not change as a result of the new appointment, the release stated.


Choi, who has been president of the UM System since March 2017, will be the first president to also have direct authority over the Columbia campus since the creation of the university system in 1963.


At UCF, Cartwright will be paid a salary of $600,000 a year, with a total compensation package worth about $1 million annually for five years, the Orlando Sentinel reported.


At MU, Cartwright was paid $485,000 a year and gave up deferred compensation potentially worth $125,000 by leaving before he had been chancellor for five years.


Choi is paid $530,000 a year as UM System president.


The move by Cartwright was a surprise, Brncic said. The chancellor had been on campus since August 2017 and had a seemingly good relationship with Choi.


There has often been tension between past presidents, who work out of University Hall off Stadium Boulevard, and Columbia campus chancellors, who work in Jesse Hall. The tension was on very public display in November 2015, when Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin and President Tim Wolfe both lost their jobs in the same day.


Choi, 56, was provost at the University of Connecticut when he was selected in the fall of 2016. In an interview in August 2017, Choi said he wanted to remain in Columbia for 10 years or longer, which would also be a first since the system was formed.


He said a similar thing about the need for stability in the chancellor’s office when Cartwright was hired.


While he and Cartwright had professional differences, Choi said, they got along personally, he said.


"Our public persona is one of collaboration," Choi said. "In any organization that has two top leaders, there are going to be professional disagreements."


Those disagreements did not take place in public, Brncic said.


"There was never any visible tension between the two in front of the board," she said.


During a Board of Curators discussion in 2018, a consultant told members that the University of Missouri has a hybrid system that calls the Columbia campus a flagship but does not follow a pure flagship model.


Terry McTaggart of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, said that in a system defined as a flagship model, the job of overall university leadership and leadership of the main campus are combined.


Defining the role and relationship of the MU chancellor and the system president was an important part of the work done during the search that selected Choi, Curator Jon Sundvold said during that meeting.


"I will send out a warning," he said. "Since I have been there since 1979, there has always been some issue between that campus chancellor and the president."


The Columbia campus, along with colleges and universities nationwide, has sent students home to help control spread of the novel coronavirus that emerged last year. The university is attempting to maintain education via online instruction, which will resume when spring break ends Monday.


At the same time, the university has made major financial commitments that of a type it has not made in the past.


The university is building its first research building in nearly two decades and doing so by issuing revenue bonds pledging the revenues of both the university and MU Health Care. In the past, the university used revenue bonds to build facilities such as residence halls.


The NextGen Precision Health Institute is currently under construction at an estimated cost of $221 million.


In coming months, if the pandemic eases, it will leave in its wake an economy in need of rebuilding.


The plunge in the value of stocks and other securities, which produce income that supports scholarships, professorships and research, could result in a substantial shortfall. It could also hamper the university's ability to keep up with its retirement promises, requiring a larger share of payroll to maintain investments.


Higher education, which is funded from state general revenue and proceeds from casinos and the lottery, could also face significant state budget cuts as income taxes and sales tax revenue plunges.


Kendrick, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said the uncertainty of when federal aid will arrive and the decision to delay tax filing means the state is facing a large shortfall by June 30. Higher education often takes some of the biggest cuts when withholdings occur, he noted.


"In the short term, one of my biggest concerns is how the state of Missouri handles the obvious cash-flow issue we will have for the remainder of Fiscal Year 20," he said.


The economic destruction wrought by the need to control the contagion is also likely to impact the ability of students to pay for tuition and housing, leading to a likely drop in enrollment just as the campus was recovering from a crash in 2016 and 2017 related to protests in 2015.


The NextGen building will be completed on time and staff with top researchers, Choi promised.


The university must prepare for the coming months of stress, he said.


"The next few months are going to reveal some very significant financial challenges for this university and other universities," he said. "The new normal will be here, but we don't know what that new normal looks like."


rkeller@columbiatribune.com


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