Tim Wolfe, president of the University of Missouri, resigned this morning under intense pressure.
I’m still trying to figure out what Wolfe did wrong. The racism on campus seems no different from a thousand other campuses, or the rest of our society. The response of Wolfe to that racism, with indifference, platitudes, and apologies, also seems no different from most other college presidents.
And I’m troubled by the hunger strike that seems to have brought this conflict to a boil.
Graduate student Jonathan Butler was on a hunger strike at the University of Missouri, demanding that President Wolfe must be fired. The University of Missouri football players endorsed this by pledging to go on strike until Wolfe is removed “due to his negligence toward marginalized students’ experiences.”
First, I should say that I hate hunger strikes. To engage in a hunger strike, to endanger your own life in order to draw attention to a cause, is dubious at best, even when the cause is just. It is an exploitation of the humane concern of others, to engage in self-harm for a political cause. Perhaps it might be justifiable for desperate people living under extreme oppression by a totalitarian regime. But that doesn’t describe a university, where argument should prevail. If a student decided to pour gasoline over himself and threatened to light himself on fire unless we paid attention to his cause, we would regard that student as mentally ill and dangerous. Why should a slower form of self-harm be any different? I disagree with the trend of colleges punishing students for threatening self-harm, but I certainly do not think we should stand up and applaud a hunger strike.
Second, I think Butler’s reasons for his hunger strike are incoherent and unconvincing. Here are the examples he offered that motivated his actions:
–a student was called the n-word by some people in a pickup truck;
–“graduate students being robbed of their health insurance”;
–“Planned Parenthood services being stripped from campus”;
–“peaceful demonstrators being threatened with pepper spray”; and
–someone in a dorm bathroom drew a swastika with feces.
To be honest, these acts suggest that the University of Missouri is less racist, sexist, homophobic, and feces-filled than a typical Republican presidential campaign.
The only action Wolfe might be personally responsible for, the health insurance, also has nothing to do with the bigotry that motivates Butler. And I have no idea how Wolfe is supposed to control the words of bigots in pickup trucks.
According to Butler, “the fact that a MU student felt comfortable enough with the campus culture to use their own feces to draw a swastika on campus, that really tells you about the direction in which the University of Missouri is headed.” If a student proudly bragged about doing such a thing, that might indicate a campus culture of hatred. But the vile act of one anonymous idiot tells you nothing about anything, except the obvious fact that anti-Semitism still exists among at least 0.003% of the campus population.
Butler is silent about what, exactly, President Wolfe should have done to stop this unknown poop painter. Would a more diverse population solve this problem? Does Butler call for the hiring of more Jews to prevent the existence of idiots making Nazi signs?
The University of Missouri student population is 8% African-American (compared to the state of Missouri, which is 11% black). By comparison, a similar flagship, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has a student enrollment of 5.5% African-American in a state that’s 15% black. (In faculty diversity, Missouri at 6.1% African-American is slightly below Illinois’ 7.5% African-American faculty.)
There’s no evidence that bigotry is worse at the University of Missouri than in the rest of society, or at any other university. Nor is there any evidence that Wolfe is the cause, although Butler blames these incidents on a “poisonous infestation of apathy that has been spawning from University of Missouri system leadership.”
Wolfe is also under attack because he did not get out of his car in the middle of the homecoming parade to talk with protesters. I’m all in favor of protest, and I think administrators must meet with their critics, but even I think that the middle of a parade is an unreasonable meeting place to demand.
A list of demands by student protesters includes some thoughtful ideas, some good if unrealistic proposals (to have students, faculty, and staff select the president and chancellor), and some bad ideas (requiring a mandatory racial inclusion curriculum determined exclusively by people of color and enforced on all departments). But very little in the demands seems connected to any of the incidents that led to Wolfe’s resignations.
It’s tempting to praise the effectiveness of a campus protest because it so rarely works. It’s certainly possible that Tim Wolfe was a terrible president who deserved to be fired. But not for the reasons offered by Butler, and not because a student decided to go on a hunger strike.