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The Missouri legislature has decided to take advantage of last year’s student demonstrations to establish a commission to help get the university on what the predominantly GOP body deems the straight and narrow. SCR 66 (pdf), which was just passed by the legislature, authorizes the creation of the University of Missouri System Review Commission to examine university functions, “including but not limited to the System’s collected rules and regulations, administrative structure, campus structure, auxiliary enterprises structure, degree programs, research activities, and diversity programs.”

The Commission will consist of eight members, four appointed by the (Republican) President Pro Tempore of the Senate, and four by the (Republican) Speaker of the House. There’s no provision for representatives from the minority party or any other type of minority, nor is there a mechanism to incorporate the views of university representatives. This failure has, of course, created some ill-feeling on the part of Democrats and minority lawmakers. And they should be concerned. As should be all of us who value academic freedom.

There are those who point out that the commission has no authority to enforce its recommendations. They are missing the point. Senator Kurt Schaefer (R-19), Chair of the Senator Appropriations Committee and a sponsor of the legislation, has made it clear that if the University doesn’t go along, it won’t get along – his committee, he has overtly declared, will hold the University budget hostage to ensure its compliance. Couple this threat with the very broad charge empowering the commission to make recommendations on just about all aspects of academic life and be very afraid.

Do you feel confident that the commission will not politicize the research process it plans to review? Remember that it was Schaefer, who threatens that the budget ax will reward recalcitrance on the part of UM, who  tried to stop a UM graduate student from completing her dissertation research on the impacts of the 72 hour abortion waiting period enacted by Missouri lawmakers last year, declaring that the research was “a marketing aid for Planned Parenthood.”

Do you think that the commission won’t take advantage of their control over university purse strings to micromanage administrative decisions? They’ve already extorted the university by withholding essential funds in order to compel UM to sever its relationship with Planned Parenthood. The university was forced to deny the organization admitting privileges at the UM hospital. Abortion clinics are required by state law to have hospital admitting privileges and the UM action effectively shut down the Columbia clinic.

Do we really want these rightwing fanatics dictating the curriculum in the university? They’ve tried to do it before, in the medical school of all places. The University was forced to cancel contracts with Planned Parenthood that allowed medical students to get on-the-job experience delivering women’s health care in Planned Parenthood clinics; the contracts were only reinstated after Planned Parenthood agreed that the students would not be taught about abortion.

Do we really want partisan lawmakers micromanaging hiring and firing choices at UM? Remember that this is the group that threatened to withhold funds in order to force the firing of Melissa Click, the journalism instructor whose behavior during the student protests excited wide criticism. The abrupt firing, which violated academic norms by failing to show cause in a hearing before an elected faculty body, was obviously coerced and, consequently, problematic enough to earn the attention of the American Association of University Professors which has condemned it as ” action fundamentally at odds with basic standards of academic due process.”

It seems more than likely, that through the Commission, Missouri’s Republican legislature is seeking to relegate to itself the power to bring politics even more forcefully into Missouri’s premier academic institution, while securing an even wider range of influence. Nothing at UM will be safe if we allow conservative ideologues and religious fanatics to politicize the university’s curriculum, student and faculty research, hiring and firing.  The result won’t be pretty.