Leaders of the University of Missouri system announced Tuesday that they would uphold their decision to fire a communications professor whose role in campus protests brought national attention.
When a video first surfaced showing her screaming at a student trying to report on protests, mass media professor Melissa Click said she didn’t think — given the extraordinary events that had paralyzed Missouri’s state flagship university campus — that her role would be a big issue.
But she became an enduring and incredibly polarizing image of the unrest, one that continues to reverberate in Columbia and far beyond. She’s now a symbol to some of a complete loss of control and lasting financial and cultural damage to Mizzou; to others of an assault on First Amendment rights in an era when many students say they need to be protected from ideas they find offensive; and to still others a sign of heavy-handed political pressure imposed on academia.
Click herself, in a wide-ranging interview recently, said she became a lightning rod for people who didn’t like protesters wielding so much power and effecting so much change — that it was easier for them to target a white woman with a PhD than to direct their anger at black students.
Click had appealed the University of Missouri Board of Curator’s decision in February to fire her, but the board announced Tuesday that it had voted unanimously to uphold the termination.
“In the board’s view, her appeal brought no new relevant information to the curators,” Pamela Henrickson, chair of the board, said in a statement. “Dr. Click was treated fairly throughout this matter, including meeting with investigators multiple times to share information as well as her opinion; providing investigators with a list of favorable witnesses, with every attempt made by investigators to meet with those suggested by Dr. Click; ample opportunity, along with her legal counsel, to review and provide comments to the investigator’s report, which included all documents, videos and witness statements in the report, before the final report was even reviewed by the board; and finally, Dr. Click’s opportunity to appeal the decision of the board.
“We consider this matter now closed and are moving forward as a university and as a community.”
If they were going to fire her, they should have followed the proper procedure, Click said. But there was a bigger issue left unsolved, she said. “It’s important to understand that there’s a history of racism on our campus. Firing me doesn’t address that problem.”
She said Tuesday that she would continue to fight the decision, with the help of a national association of faculty.
Missouri state Rep. Caleb Jones (R) wrote in an email Tuesday, “While it is a shame that it took so long, it is good to see closure on such a divisive and controversial issue. While there are certainly more topics to be addressed, I hope this closes the door on the question as to whether or not the University of Missouri cares about the well being of their students.”
Back in November, Click was just one assistant professor of communication in the midst of a historic upheaval, she thought. The University of Missouri system president and chancellor had been forced out amid intense demonstrations over race and bias issues. Similar protests about race were bubbling up on campuses across the country, led by activists inspired by the Mizzou students’ power.
But not only did the video of her calling for “muscle” to keep a reporter away immediately go viral — as well as another one of her confronting police at an earlier protest — but the attention on her continued to be glaring, the anger against her deep and sustained.
She was charged with assault for pushing the student reporter’s camera away from the protesters (a charge later dismissed in exchange for community service). More than 100 lawmakers called for her to be fired, and some threatened budget cuts if she were not.
In February, the Board of Curators — which oversees the entire state system of universities — voted to terminate her.
She appealed that decision, saying in a statement that she had become a scapegoat and a way for the board to deflect attention from the real problems — deep-rooted racism on campus.
Click said many people “were frustrated with the amount of power black students were able to mobilize, to try to create change on campus.”
“It’s not palatable for people to directly state their frustration with this black movement. I think the mistake I made put me in the spotlight. Because I’m white, I have a PhD, I’m a woman, it’s really easy to target me.
“That’s not to say that I didn’t make mistakes. I do think it’s easier to express the anger of the situation at me than it is to express it at the students.”
There were heated issues on campus that fall, including political pressure involving Planned Parenthood and a cut in benefits for graduate students, and the impact of the racial tensions in Ferguson, Mo., a couple of hours away, was deeply felt at Mizzou.
Click said she was trying to protect students who felt they were not being heard when they said they were not treated well on campus. She also said she has apologized repeatedly for the mistakes that she made.
Lost in all that, Click said, were some of the nuances of First Amendment rights, the tension there between freedom of the press and freedom of assembly, and the ethical obligations journalists have to treat sources with respect.
Her opponents felt it was much simpler than that: She behaved inappropriately. She yelled at police officers. She intimidated reporters by calling for “muscle” to get them away from others on the public university campus.
After a student reporter said he had a First Amendment right to be there, Click said, “I can’t hear you!” and started chanting, “Hey hey! Ho ho! Reporters have got to go!”
“I think people who feel strongly about the First Amendment have become very opinionated about my actions in that video because they care so deeply about any threats they perceive to the First Amendment,” Click said. She wondered how social media had fed into the anger. “When people are talking in short sentences about complex issues it’s really easy to become polarized and take those stands. In a political season when we’ve got the political opposites of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, I think my story appeals to both sides of the political spectrum” as a way to understand cultural change.
It also speaks to the debate over what a college education is for: To prepare students for a career? Or to teach young people to ask hard questions, how to understand the world around them?
For those who think questioning authority and the status quo is important, the students pushing for cultural change were doing important work — fighting bigotry.
Others saw mayhem — students unable to go to class, the university tarred as a discordant place, a professor screaming at students.
The turmoil this fall continues to affect campus in ways large and small.
Many believe this is one of the large ones: Mizzou’s interim chancellor sent a message to the campus community last week warning of a “very significant budget shortfall due to an unexpected sharp decline in first-year enrollments and student retention this coming fall.”
They anticipate 1,500 fewer students than the 35,000 they have now — a number that includes about 900 fewer freshmen.
Henry “Hank” Foley explained changes to ramp up and improve admissions and recruitment and an aggressive outreach program to students who have been admitted but have not enrolled — and the cuts they will need to make to close the anticipated $32 million gap.
If the freshman class is significantly smaller, that will continue to have budget impacts for years as the class moves through.
Legislators were threatening budget cuts if Click were not fired.
Some cited both her behavior during the protests and her scholarship, questioning why state dollars should go to research into topics such as “Fifty Shades of Grey” and Lady Gaga.
David Steelman, an alumnus, former legislative leader, lawyer and member of the Board of Curators, wrote in The Post that,
Most of the world recognized Professor Click’s actions as a clear and dangerous abuse of authority.
The governor delivered a forceful statement of the public’s justifiable anger, and an overwhelming number of legislators have called for her termination.
Finally, admissions to the University of Missouri are down, and while not all reasons are known, it seems reasonable to assume that there are parents and prospective students who have watched Professor Click’s actions, imagined themselves or their children exposed to her abuse, and applied elsewhere.
To date the university’s sole action has been to place what I consider a meaningless admonishment in her file.
… Unfortunately, Melissa Click has become the face of the University of Missouri for many.
When she was fired, the American Association of University Professors expressed shock, launched an investigation and warned that it could lead to a censure for the university; she was in the midst of the tenure-approval process, and they were concerned that the university’s own procedures had not been followed.
“It’s extremely unusual,” said Ben Trachtenberg, chair of Mizzou’s faculty council, which represents the 2,000 or so faculty members there. He said there is a process in place if someone is concerned about the conduct of a faculty member, and the board did not follow it. “When you make up the rules after the fact you undermine confidence in the process.”
Click says things spiraled out of control somehow. “I don’t see any scenario except for dealing with the conservative legislature that is better because I was fired. … It’s a signal to the legislature and other conservative members of the Missouri community that the administration is in charge, we’ll blood-let by getting rid of her.
“I love the school. It’s painful to see it be in such turmoil.”
Her termination is effective immediately.
Here is the full text of Foley’s letter:
Dear university community,
I am writing to you today to confirm that we project a very significant budget shortfall due to an unexpected sharp decline in first-year enrollments and student retention this coming fall. I wish I had better news.
The anticipated declines, which total about 1,500 fewer students than current enrollment at MU, in addition to a small number of necessary investments are expected to leave us with an approximate $32 million budget gap for next year. A smaller entering freshman class will have continuing impact on finances as they progress toward their degrees at MU…
Given that these declines are the result of drops in first-time student enrollments and retention of enrolled students, there are a number of initiatives and projects currently underway to stem the tide in both the short- and long-term. We are reaching out to admitted students who have not yet enrolled and to their parents with phone calls, Skype calls, videos and a text campaign, all of which involve current students, faculty and administrators throughout the university. We also are in the process of adding more out-of-state recruiters and we are redesigning all our Admissions materials to ensure they meet the expectations and needs of prospective students. I have also asked Admissions to develop a new web-based admissions platform that is streamlined and that will involve live feedback to prospective students. The goal is to make it easy to apply and to know very quickly what their prospects are for admission to MU. The key is to be faster, more personal and much more interactive.
To this end, we are implementing the following guidelines for FY17 budget planning. We will:
Impose a cut of 5 percent to all annual recurring general revenue budgets (rate dollars) without exception. Should the current assumptions that led to a $32 million gap be absolutely accurate, we will be $10 million short of balancing our recurring budget. A gap of that nature will be addressed in FY17 with reserves (cost dollars), and then any additional cuts necessary to balance the recurring budget will be carried into the following year.
We are implementing an across-the-board hiring freeze for all units on campus. We urge all campus administrators to carefully review their staffing levels and to not refill any positions unless they are absolutely necessary to the mission. Decisions to add faculty or staff must be exceptional, but will be left to the discretion of the deans, vice chancellors, vice provosts and the director of athletics.
We will not have an annual merit increase program this year. Effectively that means merit increases are at zero for the entire campus. Promotional increases for faculty will still be provided.
While these budget challenges will affect our ability to deliver teaching, research and service to Missourians in the short term, we also know that we have survived other stressors of this kind before. We will endeavor as a campus to make decisions on these reductions that will least hamper our ability to deliver our core mission. We also will seek to build on the strengths of this university as we move forward.”