FILE - In this Nov. 9, 2015, file photo, Jonathan Butler, center, addresses a crowd in Columbia following the resignation of University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe after days of protests over concerns about the administration’s handling of racial issues. With changes afoot, the University of Missouri is facing a challenge: How to repair the school’s image nationally and statewide. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)
COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — With changes afoot, the University of Missouri is facing an image crisis after days of protests over concerns about the administration's handling of racial issues and subsequent leadership resignations.
Upset and embarrassed, confused graduates are calling the alumni association to vent and ask questions about what's happened. State lawmakers who represent Columbia say state funding for the university likely will be under closer scrutiny this year. Worried parents have told the school they're concerned about their sons and daughters.
University of Missouri spokeswoman Mary Jo Banken says there's no denying that the school went through "a really unsettling time — and it's probably going to be somewhat unsettling for a while."
As the school deals with its tarnished reputation, the University of Missouri System has hired the son of U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt as a lobbyist, and about 20,000 newly accepted students who would start in the fall have been sent letters assuring them that campus is safe.
Banken said the focus has turned to communicating what steps are being taken to address student concerns, including the development of diversity training for administrators, faculty and students and the new administrative position of vice chancellor for inclusion, diversity and equity.
"Yes, we do care about the image, that's important," Banken said. "But more importantly it's doing what needs to be done, and doing the right thing and then talking about it openly. I think then as a result of that, our image will improve."
Tensions at Mizzou came to a head earlier this month in response to numerous reports of racist incidents and administrators' perceived lack of response. A graduate student launched a hunger strike, and the football team threatened a boycott. Students camped in tents by Traditions Plaza — at the heart of campus — for days, calling for System President Tim Wolfe to step down or be removed from office.
Wolfe and Columbia campus Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin announced their resignations Nov. 9.
"My entire staff was doing nothing but answering the phone all day," Banken said.
Lawmakers are bracing for the fallout during the 2016 session, which begins in January. Columbia Republicans Sen. Kurt Schaefer, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Caleb Rowden both say funding for the university likely will face greater scrutiny.
Schaefer said in an earlier interview with The Associated Press that his job to push for the university's interests among his colleagues "has gotten a lot harder after the events of the last week."
"We're all pretty disappointed in how this makes our state and our flagship university look," said state Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, a Shell Knob Republican and vice chairman of the House Budget Committee, which determines state funding for public higher education institutions.
The heavy media coverage left an imprint on the minds of alumni, too, to the point that about 25 members left the Mizzou Alumni Association, Executive Director Todd McCubbin said. He tells graduates who call and are grappling with what has happened that, "Mizzou is not what they've been seeing on the news."
"But it's also not sunny and 75 (degrees) on the Quad every day," he said. "We're somewhere in the middle."
Ryan Rink, who graduated from Mizzou in 1995 and was in Columbia on Friday for a reunion, said he hopes what's happened at the university can motivate other schools to change.
"This is a bigger problem than just Mizzou," Rink said.
Other universities — such as Yale, where students protested following a professor's response to a university email warning about racially insensitive Halloween costumes — also are dealing with racial issues, Banken said. She said the school also is "gratified" by marches and rallies at other universities to show unity with the Columbia cause, she said.
"We don't mind being the center of attention for a while," Banken said, "if it leads to something better."