Commentary: My way or the highway is off track for UM’s Choi

Art Jago
University of Missouri System President Mun Choi.

UM President and MU Interim Chancellor Mun Choi has had a few very difficult weeks of late.

In June, a consultant to the UM System told Choi and the curators that “I think you folks are going to be facing a financial tsunami” because of Covid-19 and the ensuing economic crisis. Quite independently, 3,000 students, faculty, and others signed a petition to have a statue of Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president and a slave holder, removed from MU’s Francis Quadrangle. Choi announced that the statue will remain and stated that his decision is final.

He fired a beloved dean of the College of Education but gave no reason, and that spawned a very contentious meeting with that college’s faculty. (Provost Latha Ramchand reminded faculty that deans are employed “at will” and serve at the discretion of the provost and chancellor.) Another petition asked Choi and Ramchand to reconsider a negative tenure decision. The fall opening of the campus remains questionable, as is the Tigers’ football schedule.

In all of this, however, most surprising was Choi’s brazen admonition to MU staff that they should cheerfully support his well-reasoned decisions or dust off their résumés and move on (Tribune, July 18). Such an antiquated managerial philosophy is quite indefensible in any organization and certainly in an educational institution with MU’s stated core values of respect, discovery, and intellectual pluralism.

Choi says he bases his new leadership style — my way or the highway — on one psychologist’s opinion that, if subordinates don’t feel that senior management is making a good decision, “it’s probably time to start looking for another job.” Don’t question that decision or express concerns. Just “wrap your head around why this decision was reasonable ... and start working with your team to carry out the new plan.” The implicit message from that psychologist is don’t presume you have opinions that may be useful to your hierarchical superiors.

The person that Choi relies upon is an experimental psychologist who is certainly a recognized expert in human memory and the brain’s way of organizing and retrieving information. However, he has written only one scholarly article in a management journal, a 1995 study involving college students comparing video games. I am afraid that Choi is relying on an opinion of someone who does not demonstrate that he knows much about the vast literature on autocratic versus participative decision-making in organizations. That literature dates back to classic studies beginning in the 1950s at the University of Michigan (and elsewhere) and continues around the world to this day.

Involving subordinates in decision-making can have consequences for the quality of a decision itself and its effective implementation. Making a poor-quality decision, because one fails to tap the expertise and resources of subordinates, can be catastrophic. But making a high-quality (i.e., technically wise) decision that does not generate support or commitment can be equally problematic. Thinking that decision compliance, enforced through a transactional relationship of rewards and sanctions (carrots and sticks), will suffice without internalized support and commitment, can have the short-term consequences of inadequate or uneven implementation. Additionally, it can have the long-term consequences of poor morale and losing some of the very people one would want to keep and ultimately promote.

All leaders must also remember that a member may disagree with a particular decision without necessarily being unsupportive of the institution. Time and again it has been demonstrative that constructive conflict is useful to the health of the organization.

As a group, MU’s current leaders lack an institutional memory. In 2015 then-Chancellor Bowen Loftin fired the dean of the School of Medicine, refusing to give any reason or explanation, only to be met with such dissatisfaction from faculty that the dean was restored to his position within six months. He alienated all the deans when he called them “middle management” and reminded them that they could be fired at any time. At about the same time, racial tensions at MU caused students to protest against President Tim Wolfe. Rather than seek Loftin’s participation in a joint effort to seek some resolution of this tension, Wolfe became convinced that Loftin had somehow shifted blame for the students’ concerns to Wolfe and he froze Loftin out of decision-making. The two were unable to work with each other, racial tensions escalated and both men were fired (or forced to resign) on a memorable Monday morning.

These episodes involving Loftin and Wolfe are MU lessons that confirm the findings from the extensive academic literature on leadership styles, particularly participation and autocracy in decision-making. Autocracy, seemingly quite appropriate and efficient to the decision-maker, can sometimes be remarkably short-sighted.

On July 28 the UM curators will likely consolidate the roles of UM president and MU chancellor and formally elevate Choi to that position. When all is considered, that will be good for MU. The entire community should wish Choi the very best in fulfilling that role and all should be prepared to help, if he asks, in making the decisions that he will face in these uncertain times.

Art Jago is professor emeritus of management, Trulaske College of Business, at the University of Missouri and former chair of the Department of Management.