Students and Faculty of Color Petition Against Leadership Change at Mizzou’s College of Education

On Twitter, Alexis Hunter, a rising senior at the University of Missouri (MU), posted a picture of her and Dr. Kathryn Chval, formerly the dean of MU’s College of Education, in matching plaid suits.

Hunter was one of more than 800 people to sign a petition protesting Chval’s removal as dean the first week of July. While Chval will continue to serve as a professor of mathematics education, there’s an ongoing push for her reinstatement as dean, particularly from students and faculty of color who saw her as an advocate.

Dr. Kathryn ChvalDr. Kathryn Chval

“To have a Dean that speaks life into students, makes time to interact with us once a month … and is committed to transforming our college and campus so that all students feel valued is special,” Hunter tweeted. “Dr. Chval must be reinstated.”

Hunter said she was “shocked” when she heard about Chval’s sudden removal. She met Chval freshman year when she participated in the Dorsey Leadership Academy, a scholarship program for underrepresented students in the University of Missouri College of Education. As a Black student, Hunter said she leaned on Chval “heavily and constantly” as a mentor, especially amid Black Lives Matter protests this summer.

The move also took faculty by surprise. The Missourian reported a heated meeting between college faculty and Dr. Latha Ramchand, MU’s provost, and Dr. Mun Choi, the University of Missouri system president and interim chancellor, where the decision was widely questioned. Meanwhile, a letter from colleagues in mathematics, sent on July 21, emphasized Chval’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. It argued that, since she took her role as dean in 2016, minority faculty in tenure-track positions nearly tripled under her leadership to 34% of the college’s faculty.

“The staff, faculty and students do not have a full view of the situation, as is often the case with personnel issues,” wrote Liz McCune, associate director of the University of Missouri News Bureau, in an email to Diverse, adding that leadership is “privy to information” petitioners are not. Chval declined a request for comment.

Choi countered the letter with an email that said the number of Black undergraduates and the number of Black and Latinx tenure-track professors did not increase during Chval’s tenure, and the six-year graduation rate for Black students decreased from 63% to 50% in the College of Education.

“Provost Ramchand and President Choi care deeply about the students and faculty of color as well as the rest of the school’s community,” McCune wrote. “Their decisions are based on what they believe will result in greater student success and overall performance of the school, as that is their responsibility.”

But to Dr. Lisa Flores, a professor of educational, school and counseling psychology, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. She said Chval bolstered faculty of color by supporting diversity-related research, expanding diversity courses within the college, building an office exclusively for diversity programming and easing teaching burdens on junior faculty of color so they wouldn’t be overloaded by service work.

“Recruitment of students, recruitment of faculty, is one indication that can be used as outcomes,” Flores said. “Another important one is retention, and under her leadership there has been significant retention of faculty of color within the college. Another one is inclusion, and that is something that the numbers are not going to grasp – how are the voices, how are the experiences of faculty of color, included in decisions within the college and within the campus? … There has been significant change and enhancement within the college so that faculty of color feel very much included in important decisions.”

Dr. Francisco Sánchez, an associate professor of educational, school and counseling psychology, wasn’t a fan of Chval at first, after she ignored the recommendations of a hiring committee comprised of faculty of color, himself included, he said. But over time, she earned his respect.

“I would say that most professors of color trust her,” he said. “Becoming a multi-culturally competent person is a lifelong thing, and she was constantly trying to improve.”

Chval’s strength was giving minority faculty a seat at the table, Flores said, and, ultimately, “if you just focus on numbers, but don’t have inclusion, the numbers don’t matter because [faculty of color] are not going to stay.”

While Flores doesn’t think Chval’s removal reflects the university’s commitment to diversity and inclusion more broadly, she’s concerned campus leadership didn’t foresee the impact the decision would have on faculty of color.

In meetings with the president and provost, Flores came out feeling “surprised,” she said, “that the chancellor and the provost were surprised at reactions of faculty … which suggests to me that they weren’t in touch with the sentiment of faculty, particularly faculty of color. Of course, it’s their decision to remove her, but once they made the decision I would expect that they knew or should’ve known that a large number of faculty would have been upset.”

Chval’s dismissal comes on the heels of a controversial comment made by Choi in a Zoom meeting of deans and administrators on July 10, in which he implied those who publicly disagree with decisions made by university leadership should consider new jobs. The meeting included a discussion of the university’s earlier decision to keep its statue of Thomas Jefferson, despite student protests.

In an interview in The Columbia Daily Tribune about the incident, Choi said, in general, “if you are a leader, a senior leader at the university, and you don’t agree with the philosophy of the university or you don’t trust the motivations of the senior leaders, then I think you should leave.”

McCune added that it’s the president’s “right and responsibility to encourage leaders, staff, faculty and students to find positive rather than destructive ways to achieve progress and change at the university” and that he doesn’t “silence dissent.”

To Sánchez, Chval’s removal felt related.

It sounded like the president was “telling everyone to be in lockstep or leave,” he said. “Now it’s starting to make me wonder what is it exactly that Dean Chval was not in lockstep with …?”

Sánchez noted that Choi came to the university not long after widespread student protests, a time when donors and legislators were “super angry” at the university and withheld funding, requiring much of the president’s energy and attention. Perhaps “his eye was not on the campus,” Sánchez said, and the decision to remove Chval — and the resulting tensions — seem like a symptom of that.

“I appreciate the situation that President Choi came in,” he added. But now, he’s left with a campus climate where “where we don’t feel heard.”

Sara Weissman can be reached at sweissman@diverseeducation.com.