Backlash begins over University of Missouri protest response

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Two Missouri legislators propose that universities revoke the scholarships of athletes if they go on strike. Another proposes mandatory classes on free speech for all students. And state legislative leaders say funding for the University of Missouri could be cut.

Those are a few examples of the backlash after members of the university's football team threatened to strike and joined protests over the administration's handling of racial tensions on campus. Top university officials later resigned.

"The perception is that there's a lot of things that went wrong, and there's going to be a price to pay," Republican Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard said Tuesday.

Last month a graduate student went on a hunger strike, the football team supported the student and the head football coach backed his players. The next day former university system President Tim Wolfe stepped down. The Missouri protests prompted demonstrations of support at universities around the country.

The upheaval shocked and embarrassed some alumni, as well as members of the state legislature. With weeks before the 2016 state legislative session is scheduled to begin on Jan. 6, some lawmakers, most of them Republicans, say the university will face consequences for how leaders handled the protests.

The university "coddled the students and gave them everything they wanted," said Republican Rep. Kurt Bahr, who co-sponsored the bill on student athletes' scholarships. He said the university should have revoked football players' scholarships if they didn't practice or play.

University of Missouri System spokesman John Fougere in an emailed statement said the university is "committed to working closely and rebuilding confidence with our state legislators in the upcoming session."

The backlash comes at a time when the University of Missouri's relationship with the Legislature already was tense. The school this past year faced criticism from some GOP lawmakers who questioned agreements between the Columbia campus and a local Planned Parenthood clinic that had offered medication-induced abortions. Republicans hold supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature.

A major lever they could use to punish the state's flagship university is money.

Funding for the University of Missouri is "going to take a haircut," Senate leader Richard said.

About 15 percent of the system's budget this fiscal year came from state appropriations.

Republican House Majority Leader Mike Cierpiot said lawmakers should be sensitive to the feelings of minority students protesting on campus but also need to stress the university's mission to educate.

"They want to find out what's going on and how we can get Missouri out of the headlines," Cierpiot said, referring to national media attention.

Some of the proposals suggested by legislators are more symbolic that real. Bahr said his goal for the bill to punish student athletes was to show the university that some lawmakers disagree with how leadership handled the campus unrest.

The proposals have drawn criticism from some Democrats.

The bill to punish athletes "seeks to further solidify and legalize institutional racism by targeting black athletes for exercising their constitutional rights to free speech and reducing them to the status of subjugated livestock," Missouri Legislative Black Caucus Chairman Rep. Brandon Ellington said in a statement.

Republican Rep. Dean Dohrman said his bill to require students in public colleges to take a class on freedom of speech was in part motivated by a communications professor who tried to stop a student photographer from taking pictures of protesters. Her actions were widely criticized by advocates for freedom of the press and speech, and she later apologized.

Senate Democratic Leader Joe Keaveny said it's not up to the Legislature to fix issues at the University of Missouri.

"I'm not about to begin to run that university, and I don't think anybody in Jefferson City should begin to run that university," he said.


Associated Press reporter David A. Lieb contributed to this report.

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