The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mizzou’s impact is felt on campuses nationwide

Protesters at Duke University. (Steven Petrow)

The protests at the University of Missouri, which upended an entire campus system this week, continue to have an impact across the country as student demonstrators seize on the energy of the moment and racial tensions escalate.

“They smell blood in the water,” said Raymond Cotton, a lawyer who represents university presidents and boards, of activists who have been emboldened by the success of the protesters at Mizzou. “The students out there got their university not only to back down, but they got the heads of two administrators.”

The Missouri protests — including a graduate student’s hunger strike and threatened football team boycott — claimed the jobs of the university system’s president and the school’s chancellor amid furor over the school’s lack of response to racism and other bigotry on campus. The school has since announced a series of changes to improve campus climate and appointed an interim president who, as a founder of the black student government on campus, had presented his own list of demands to the administration decades ago.

It was a remarkable transformation of a public university system and its highly regarded flagship campus in Columbia, Mo.

[Onetime civil-rights lawyer takes helm at Mizzou, as campus protests spread elsewhere]

In its wake, many people are suddenly talking about race on the nation’s campuses, with student activists seizing the momentum from Mizzou to make their own voices heard. There have been open campus forums, meetings between students and administrators that might not have happened a couple of weeks ago, changes made, goals set.

And there has been pushback. On some campuses, that has taken the form of thoughtful debates. On others, there have been tensions, and anger. There has been screaming, spitting, shoving, hate speech, vandalism, even multiple threats of mass shootings targeting black people.

Four campuses tightened security or locked down after receiving online threats, and four suspects were arrested.

[On the front lines of the fight for free speech at Yale]

[[Violent threats rattle colleges]

And protests continued to ripple across the country, from Georgetown to Duke to Kansas to UCLA.

It’s like Virginia Tech in 2007, Cotton said, when a peaceful rural campus with unlocked doors was shattered by a mass shooting that killed 32 students. After that day, virtually every college administration re-thought campus security.

“That’s what I think is going to happen in this case,” with a re-examination of how university leaders approach issues of diversity, how they respond to student demonstrations, and how they ensure campus safety when things flare up. “Yes, presidents care about diversity, of course they do, they’re asked about it when they’re hired,” Cotton said.

But has it been one of their top priorities? In some cases, he said, but now he believes it will be something every college president will be talking about. “It’s inevitable, absolutely. … There are lots of institutions that probably, like Mizzou, have been asleep at the switch that are now going to be awakened, pay more attention to diversity and issues of concern to minority students. … Times are changing. We’re in an era of transition.”

At Yale, that transition means the university president answered the door shortly before midnight Thursday to protesters, who, inspired by the results at Mizzou, marched to his house and presented a long list of demands.

[Minority students at Yale give list of demands to university president]

At some campuses, university leaders stood with protesters.

At Duke, more than a thousand people attended a “community conversation” convened by the university president after incidents including a noose found hanging outside the student center last spring, and an anti-gay death threat scrawled in a dorm.

But before the community conversation began Friday, protesters marched in and took over the stage, chanting, “Duke, you are guilty!”

What happened at Mizzou has helped students on other campuses coalesce around the idea that they can be more public in their calls for change at universities and colleges, said Cassandra Osei, a Kansas alum who created the hashtag #RockChalkInvisibleHawk.

“It’s easier to follow your gut when you’re seeing someone else do it and also get tangible results,” she said.

Osei is now a graduate student at the University of Illinois, but Rock Chalk Invisible Hawk lives on at KU, located in Lawrence, about 2.5 hours from Missouri’s campus in Columbia. This week, a group that carries the name disrupted a town hall forum at KU, and reportedly presented a list of demands.

“I am one of the many alums who watched yesterday’s forum from afar,” Osei wrote in an letter in the University Daily Kansan this week. “As the creator of the original #RockChalkInvisibleHawk hashtag, I cannot express how proud I am that its use is promoting visible action and change on this campus.”

At Smith College in Massachusetts, Raven Fowlkes-Witten, a junior from Baltimore, said there’s a dramatic difference this week since the protests at Mizzou. “Tons of students are organizing different things.”

Lots of students, including white students, have asked her how they can help raise awareness about racism, she said, and a dean, the chief diversity officer and the college president have all reached out to her this week. On Monday there will be a ‘town hall’ at which students of color can talk about their experiences and how they can feel more safe on campus, she said.

“It should have happened before,” she said. “I’m proud it’s happening now.”

At Georgetown University, student activists met Friday morning with university President John J. DeGioia to discuss their demands for steps to address racial injustice.

Students had rallied Thursday night on the Washington, D.C. campus, and followed that with direct delivery of their demands. Then about 30 of them held a quiet sit-in outside the president’s suite. At the sit-in, held in a carpeted foyer next to a staircase, many students were working on laptops and chatting quietly beneath gilded chandeliers.

“It’s a very thoughtful, respectful gathering,” said Jeanne Lord, dean of students, surveying the scene. While some schools have contended with swastika vandalism (at Bowie State University and at Mizzou) and other incendiary incidents of racism and bigotry recently, Lord said she is unaware of anything comparable recently at Georgetown.

University officials said the sit-in started at about 9 a.m., and DeGioia invited students into his suite to talk soon afterward. DeGioia was unavailable for comment, and as of Friday evening, university officials provided no further details  about his meeting with the students.

At Kansas State University, Muenfua Lewis, president of the Black Student Union, was surprised by the impact of their protest, “and thankful that it really did start to blow up, because it really helped African-American students achieve what they wanted to achieve.”

David Oxtoby, president of Pomona College, is well aware of the tensions – not least because Claremont McKenna, a sister school, has been embroiled in protests.

“Missouri certainly has had an influence,” he said. But it’s not just that. “It’s a confluence of what’s happened on other campuses as well. It’s what’s happening in the country. A growing sense of inequality and injustice, some of it related to income, some related to race. It’s something that students at Pomona and other colleges are passionate about. They’re trying to figure out ways that they can make a difference.”

He is listening.

“Number one is doing a lot of listening,” he said. “But we also need to act.”

They spent the last year working on a diversity strategic plan. That’s a starting point, he said. “Words aren’t enough.

“There have been a lot of words – now it’s time for action.”

Staff writer Steven Petrow contributed from Durham, N.C. This post has been updated to correct Lewis’s university affiliation.