Politics in education: Missouri curators have a long history of donating campaign money | News

On Dec. 26, 2019, Columbia resident Robin Wenneker donated $750 to Gov. Mike Parson’s campaign for reelection.

But less than two months later, when Parson made two appointments to the University of Missouri System Board of Curators, he chose Wenneker for one of the positions.

Parson’s other appointment to the board at that time was Greg Hoberock, a construction company executive and prolific Republican donor who has contributed more than $450,000 to politicians and causes within the past decade.

A little over a year later, Parson appointed Todd Graves, the former chair of Missouri’s Republican Party, to the board despite bipartisan opposition. Graves has donated almost $54,000.

Those selections to the board show how politically active and affiliated with the curators are, even as their highest-ranking board member insists otherwise.

During the past 10 years, eight of the nine curators have collectively donated more than $670.000 to various politicians and lobbying groups, a Missourian review of state and federal records shows.

The donation records provide a snapshot of curators’ political activity amid what one expert called a nationwide “awakening” regarding the actions and politics of educational governing bodies.

“People are also kind of just figuring out, ‘Oh, can boards do that?’” said Felecia Commodore, a professor of higher education at Old Dominion University in Virginia. “A lot of people just had no idea who these people are, how they come to be, what they do.”

The curators oversee the four public universities that make up the UM System.

Individual curators were not made available for interviews for this story and could not be reached directly for comment. Board Chair Darryl Chatman, on behalf of the entire board, provided brief answers to questions by email through a university spokesperson.

Asked to what degree curators view their appointments as partisan roles and how much of a role politics or party affiliations play in decision-making, Chatman simply wrote, “None.”

The basics of the board

The mission of the curators is to promote learning, support economic development and advance “the health, cultural, and social interests of the people of Missouri, the nation, and the world,” according to the group’s own mission statement.

But the reality is that the group of nine women and men are politically active residents.

One curator, Julia Brncic, through a university spokesperson, said she donated to two federal-level political action committees because of their support for affordable health care and that she retains no decision-making authority within those PACs. One curator, Chatman, has not made any donations.

Those party affiliations are a sometimes-ignored part of curators’ identities, but partisan declarations are written into the core of the board. Its bylaws state that there cannot be more than five members from any one party.

Each of Missouri’s eight congressional districts must have a representative on the board, too.

Currently, the board comprises four Republicans, three Democrats and two independents.

Two curators — Brncic, an independent, and Maurice Graham, a Democrat — remain on the board more than a year after their terms expired. State law allows curators to continue to serve until Parson appoints a replacement.

A spokesperson for the governor’s office said Parson plans to “revisit” appointments to the Board of Curators later in the spring or after the end of the academic year.

That appointment process can become a highly political operation in itself.

Last year, a bipartisan filibuster delayed Senate confirmation of Graves, who was the chair of the Missouri Republican Party as recently as 2019.

‘Politics are everywhere’

On Jan. 11, the curators held a special meeting to discuss reinstating a temporary, two-week mask requirement for the UM System’s four campuses.

System President and MU Chancellor Mun Choi brought two slightly different requirements before the board, both carrying his recommendation.

(Schmitt did not sue Missouri’s public universities, most of which have required masks in some capacity.)

The board took two votes on Choi’s recommendations. Both failed, by 6-3 and 7-2 margins.

The first vote generally fell along party lines. In favor of reinstating a mask requirement were two Democrats and an independent. All four Republicans, one independent and one Democrat — Chatman — voted the measure down.

Those public health decisions, now in the hands of an education-focused governing body, are part of why more university stakeholders have their eyes on the activity of boards, one expert said.

“Frankly, some faculty were like, ‘Wait, how did these decisions about our lives happen?’” Commodore said. “Now, people are like, ‘Oh, this small group of people can make a decision that could impact my entire life.’”

While curators discussed bringing back the mask requirement, Hoberock raised the question of priorities.

“What’s the driving issue here?” he asked. “Are we trying to protect the health of all Columbia and Boone County or keep our campus open?”

Asked how curators balance priorities of the UM System, the state and their own views, Chatman said that “all relevant factors are considered in the decision-making process on a case-by-case basis.”

In the eyes of at least one Missouri state senator, those factors would include the expectations of legislators.

While the Senate was debating Graves’ nomination to the board last year, Sen. Paul Wieland, R-Imperial, called the now-curator “flippant” and questioned how accountable he would be to politicians.

“This is of great concern to me,” Wieland said at the time. “In the future, should a situation arise with the university, can we expect this nominee to be responsive to the Missouri Senate?”

Commodore argues such political circumstances are unavoidable but distracting from the mission of a governing board.

“Politics are everywhere, right? So I’m not like, ‘Oh, there should be no political appointees’ — that’s just unrealistic,” she said. “But the primary concern or motivation behind what you’re doing or what you stand up for should be the institution’s needs, not necessarily whatever entity has put you in this position.”

But that, she said, may not be so simple as trying to avoid politics, which might be inherent to a board’s function.

“Board members often themselves attempt to be objective, the reality is that higher education institutions do not exist in a vacuum,” Commodore said. “They exist in a larger ecosystem and a larger society, and particularly public institutions are wrestling with the politics of the state, the culture of the state, the sentiments and ideologies that are native to that state.”


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