A First Step in Missouri

Note: I was writing this post before John Wilson posted his reaction to the Wolfe resignation.  As should be clear, our perspectives differ. 

As the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed once more to rule on a case involving the consideration of race in college admissions, a wave of protest against campus racism by minority students has swept colleges and universities to an extent not seen, perhaps, since the early 1970s.  (For an excellent portrayal of that period see the forthcoming documentary film Agents of Change, to be released next year with partial funding from the AAUP Foundation.)  The wave has now crested at the University of Missouri (MU), where this morning as the university’s governing board convened in Columbia, home of the system’s flagship campus, system President Timothy M. Wolfe announced that he was resigning after months of student unrest — primarily over race relations, but also the rights of graduate students, treatment of adjuncts, and access to health care for women — culminating in the remarkable stance of the school’s football team, which vowed not to play until Wolfe resigned.

Wolfe’s resignation is a welcome step forward, but it will surely take more than one resignation to address the serious issues raised by students and, increasingly, by faculty as well.  And if the University of Missouri wants to seriously combat racism on campus it will need to involve its faculty and its students in a genuine spirit of shared governance.  The MU faculty have other pressing issues to address, and I am told that they are at least as much concerned about the actions in those areas of campus Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin as they were with Wolfe’s behavior.  But the student movement against racism is both worthy of faculty support in its own right and should serve as well as a potential energizer for faculty activism on a broad range of issues.  Faculty members and AAUP activists should therefore support the courageous efforts of students to combat campus racism at Missouri and elsewhere.

The roots of racism at MU run deep and reach back farther than the last year. But this wave of unrest was sparked by what has been seen by many as the absence of response from the university administration to the August 9, 2014 killing of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri, located just two hours from campus. As graduate student Jonathan Butler told The Washington Post, “There was national coverage, so for the school to not cover that or really address that, and we are only two hours away, I think was a huge mistake on their part and contributed to the current cultural environment that we have. It just shows that there are racially motivated things—murders, assaults, other things—that happen and we are just going to sweep them under the rug.”

About 8 percent of the 27,654 undergraduates on campus were black in 2014, according to enrollment figures. And a number of the black students come from Ferguson, where about two-thirds of the population is black, to Columbia, where nearly 80 percent of residents are white.

Here’s a brief account of events as they unfolded in recent weeks at the Columbia campus based on a detailed timeline published by the Columbia Missourian.

On September 12, Payton Head, a senior and president of the Missouri Student Association, renewed the dialogue about racism and the racial climate on campus after publishing a Facebook post about his first-hand experience with racism. The night before, Head said he was walking around campus when the passenger of a pickup repeatedly shouted the “N-word” at him. Head’s statement went viral on social media, and many people shared their support for him and expressed frustration with the university’s response, or lack thereof, to his post.

Another instance of racism on October 5 brought the racial climate on campus again to the attention of students and administrators. The Legion of Black Collegians shared a letter on social media describing the group’s encounter with overt racism the night before. While they rehearsed for a performance a “young man” talking on his cellphone walked up to the group. After being politely and repeatedly asked to leave, the man walked away but referenced LBC members using racial slurs.  That same day, MU Chancellor Loftin responded with a post of his own, acknowledging and condemning racism at MU.

On October 8 Loftin announced mandatory online diversity training for faculty, staff, and students, but the announcement was met with skepticism and suspicion. Jonathan Butler wrote a letter to Loftin saying the training was “a step in the right direction, but it is not enough.”

A new student organization, Concerned Student 1950, whose name refers to the year African-American students were first admitted to MU, targeted Wolfe’s car during Homecoming October 10 to send the message that students will not be ignored by administrators on the issue of discrimination on campus. “We’ve sent emails, we’ve sent tweets, we’ve messaged but we’ve gotten no response back from the upper officials at Mizzou to really make change on this campus,” Butler said afterward. The protesters blocked the street and Wolfe’s car for about 15 minutes, chanting and making speeches, until they were dispersed by police. Some students watching the parade also joined the protest in support.

Ten days after the Homecoming protest, the group issued a statement with eight demands, including enforcement of mandatory racial awareness and inclusion training for all faculty, staff and students; an increase in the percentage of black faculty and staff; and an increase in funding to hire mental health professionals for the MU Counseling Center, particularly those of color; and more staff for social justice centers on campus. A number of campus units showed their support for the sentiment, including the Department of Black Studies, the Department of Classical Studies and the School of Health Professions.

On October 24, a swastika made of human feces was found drawn on a bathroom wall.  The vandalism was reported immediately to the MU Police Department and an investigation initiated, but no one has been apprehended to date.

Three days later members of Concerned Student 1950 met with Wolfe to discuss their demands.  Members of the group said Wolfe did not agree to any of the demands they sent to him the previous week. In the meeting, Wolfe said he cared for black students at MU but was “‘not completely’ aware of systemic racism, sexism, and patriarchy on campus,” according to a statement by Concerned Student 1950.

On November 2, Jonathan Butler announced that he would commence a hunger strike that would continue until Wolfe resigned.  Butler said the demand for Wolfe’s removal from office was made because of the president’s failure to respond sincerely and actively to student concerns about discrimination on campus. Butler has continued his daily life during the strike, working and attending his classes.  That evening students began an encampment on Carnahan Quadrangle in support of Butler, vowing to remain until the semester ends in December if Wolfe did not resign.

The next day Concerned Student 1950 announced a boycott of university services until Wolfe was removed from office.  “We are boycotting spending money at the Student Center, we are boycotting football games — anything that brings the university extra money, until everything is resolved. If you can’t listen to our voices, you can’t have our dollars,” said Storm Ervin, a Concerned Student 1950 representative.

On November 5, about 200 members and supporters of Concerned Student 1950 participated in a demonstration before the MU-Mississippi State football game, marching through campus and chanting “Join us in the revolution.” The same day, Payton Head posted on Twitter a slideshow of images of racist comments he said were made by MU students, and Chancellor Loftin responded: “Sad to see more hate speech hiding behind anonymity. Racism, bias, discrimination have no place here.”

On November 6, Wolfe issued an apology for his inaction at the Homecoming protest.  “I regret my reaction at the MU homecoming parade when the ConcernedStudent1950 group approached my car,” the statement read. “I am sorry, and my apology is long overdue. My behavior seemed like I did not care. That was not my intention. I was caught off guard in that moment. Nonetheless, had I gotten out of the car to acknowledge the students and talk with them perhaps we wouldn’t be where we are today.”  That evening student protesters confronted Wolfe outside a fundraiser in Kansas City.

In perhaps the most stunning development, on November 7 black MU football players announced their support of the boycott. “We will no longer participate in any football related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed due to his negligence toward marginalized students’ experiences,” the players announced in a tweet sent from the Legion of Black Collegians account. Sixty of the 124 players on the MU football team are black; 58 of the school’s 84 scholarship football players are African-American.

The next day — that is, yesterday — the entire football team united behind the black players.  Football coach Gary Pinkel tweeted a photograph Sunday morning showing him and nearly 100 players and assistant coaches — black and white — at the team’s training complex. “The Mizzou Family stands as one,” the tweet read. “We are united. We are behind our players. GP” In a joint statement with Mack B. Rhoades IV, the athletic director, Pinkel said practices and team activities had been canceled to focus on resolving the impasse.

The Forum on Graduate Rights steering committee, with the Coalition of Graduate Workers, also announced Sunday they would hold a two-day walkout today and tomorrow in “outrage” about a statement Wolfe released earlier on Sunday. Faculty members also announced late Sunday night that they would be available at Carnahan Quadrangle starting at 10 a.m. today to answer students’ questions as a “teach in.”  A statement was also released which 783 black MU alumni signed to show their support of Concerned Student 1950 and their call to action.

Missouri’s attorney general, Chris Koster, urged the university to set up a task force to address the students’ concerns. Claire McCaskill, the senior United States senator from Missouri and an alumna of the Columbia campus, said the Board of Curators needed to “send a clear message” to the students that they would address racism. Gov. Jay Nixon also issued a statement urging officials to address the students’ concerns “to ensure the University of Missouri is a place where all students can pursue their dreams in an environment of respect, tolerance and inclusion.”

As Dave Zirin has argued at length in The Nation, the actions of the black football players may well have been the game-changer.  “The power of this action cannot be overstated. These football players have forced people to educate themselves about a campus environment that has been on fire for months, if not years,” Zirin wrote.  “For a team that two years ago stood in solidarity with teammate Michael Sam when he told the world he was gay, they again made the lionhearted decision to rise to the moment.”

Rebecca Martinez, an assistant professor in women’s and gender studies, told Zirin, “The football program here at Mizzou is a central part of the university culture. The collective athletes of color who made the decision to go on strike do so with conviction for social justice for marginalized students on our campus. Given the importance of football here, they are taking a significant stand. They are not thinking of themselves, their play, and their careers at this moment. It is not an easy thing to do on a football-centered campus like ours, especially around the issue of racism. There will likely be no shortage of those who put football above humanity and who are convinced that racism doesn’t live here. And they are wrong.”

Zirin also spoke to Missouri associate professor Sam Cohen who said, “I have a student in class right now who is part of [the anti-racist struggle on campus], and so I’ve seen the effects this climate and this struggle can have, and I’ve also seen the fierceness with which these students have responded. There’s a sense here that the Missouri community as a whole—students, staff, and faculty—aren’t going to wait for the men at the top to lead and are instead asserting their right to protest. The bravery and intelligence of our students is an inspiration to all of us here: if they can stand up for what they believe, we all can.… The kids are all right.… I’m not a big fan of football here, but I have just become a big fan of those players.”

My sentiments entirely!  Let’s hope that Wolfe’s resignation begins a process of change at MU, but for that to succeed students and faculty alike will need to stay involved and vigilant.

ADDENDUM: I have subsequently learned that shortly before Wolfe’s resignation the student government had demanded his removal.  And most of the faculty canceled classes to hold the reported teach-in this morning as thousands gathered at Speakers Circle, the heart of the campus.  Lastly, here is the tweet that Coach Pinkel sent yesterday:

2 thoughts on “A First Step in Missouri

  1. Pingback: A Second Step in Missouri | The Academe Blog

  2. Pingback: For What It’s Worth | The Academe Blog

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