JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — The next president of the University of Missouri's four-campus system, Mun Y. Choi, said Wednesday that student and faculty opinions "matter greatly" to him and talking openly about issues can help prevent protests like ones last year over racial matters on the Columbia campus.
The announcement about University of Connecticut Provost Choi's appointment in Missouri came nearly a year after his predecessor stepped down amid turmoil in Columbia.
Choi told reporters in Jefferson City that he read a list of demands from Concerned Student 1950, a group of students who led protests at the Columbia campus.
"The voices of faculty, students and staff — the true heart and soul of the institution — matter greatly to me," Choi said. "I will be meeting but, more importantly, listening to their perspective, their history and the programs that mean a great deal to them."
Choi, who starts March 1, also emphasized setting goals for the university system's future with help from elected officials, the business community and other stakeholders. Outgoing Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who met Wednesday with Choi, said in a statement that he's a "great choice at a key time" for the system.
The Columbia community is still grappling with some of the racial tensions that led to the resignations in November 2015 of President Tim Wolfe and Columbia Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin. Mike Middleton has been serving as interim president.
They stepped down amid nationally watched student protests over what some saw as administrators' indifference to racism and other issues on the Columbia campus. One student went on a hunger strike, and some members of the school's football team threatened to strike if the administration did not respond to students' complaints.
In September, the campus temporarily suspended a fraternity over accusations of racial slurs directed toward black students. The incident is under investigation.
Also ongoing is a court battle with Columbia graduate students seeking to unionize and a bruised relationship with state lawmakers who have questioned how university leadership dealt with protests.
Some lawmakers called for a tougher response to a former assistant professor's run-in with student journalists during protests, as well as football players' threats to strike.
The Board of Curators in February fired Melissa Click, who in a videotaped confrontation called for "some muscle" to remove a student videographer from the protest area last year. That was after more than 100 lawmakers, mostly Republican, called for her ouster.
When asked about Click, Choi called for a balance between free speech and "appropriate ways to communicate." He said he needs more information about efforts to unionize, but described graduate students as the "lifeblood" of research universities.
Responding to a question about strikes by student athletes, Choi said they have "every right as any other member of the university community to voice their concerns."
He said issues that drew national attention last fall at the Columbia campus are not unique to that school or to Missouri and can be largely avoided with dialogue. He said it's important for top leaders to "give a strong commitment" that they want to help solve problems.
His appointment could mean a new start with lawmakers, who return to the Capitol in January.
Republican House Speaker Todd Richardson said in a statement that he's looking forward to working with Choi to "help make our state's flagship university everything it can and should be." Republican Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard said most of the senators "are willing to give the university a second look" and want to wait and see what decisions Choi makes.
Choi, 52, started working at the University of Connecticut in 2008, as dean of engineering and professor of mechanical engineering. He has been provost since 2012.
Before he joined the school, he was department head of mechanical engineering and associate dean for research at Drexel University. From 1994 to 2000, he was a faculty member in the mechanical engineering department at the University of Illinois.
He earned his master's degree and doctorate in mechanical and aerospace engineering from Princeton University.