Last fall, student protesters forced dramatic change at the University of Missouri after they demanded a better response from leaders to race and bias incidents on campus.
An assistant professor was caught on film during the demonstrations pushing a student journalist away from a student protest camp, and also was shown on camera yelling at police during Missouri’s homecoming parade — videos that went viral. Earlier this week, the state university system’s governing body, the Board of Curators, voted to uphold their decision to terminate her.
Click’s termination was criticized by the American Association of University Professors, which launched an investigation that could result in the organization censuring the University of Missouri. On Thursday, the Board of Curators responded that the decision “does not threaten academic tenure and does not warrant censure.”
A spokeswoman for the AAUP said they will continue with the investigation planned for next week.
Here, Melissa Click reflects on the response to the videos. — Susan Svrluga
By Melissa Click
Here in Columbia, the University of Missouri homecoming parade is a big deal, so arriving early to grab a spot last October was crucial.
Getting out the door with a young family on a Saturday morning however, can be a bit of a struggle and my thoughts that morning were dominated by the usual worries of anyone rushing out to the door to a much-anticipated event. Grateful to have found a spot that would accommodate us just moments before the parade began, we were frustrated when the candy throwing and band marching unexpectedly stopped.
When I walked the block between us and the impasse and found myself suddenly in the presence of an unfolding political demonstration, I was immediately faced with a question of conscience. A question I hadn’t anticipated when I hurriedly got ready that morning: Would I remain a spectator, or would I stand with these students enduring disparagement from the bystanders who wished the parade to continue unhindered?
If you have had any exposure to American media in the last four months, you know the quick decision I made to stand with the students, you’ve seen my inexperience with public protests, and you’ve heard my apologies for the mistakes I made while offering my support to the students working to make MU a more inclusive environment.
Among the debates and judgments the video footage of my mistakes has attracted, few have sincerely grappled with the sudden choices I had to make in challenging circumstances, and fewer still have earnestly asked whether my protected right to speak out as a US citizen requires that I must be perfect while doing so.
As a Media Studies scholar, I understand how the increased surveillance resulting from advances in technology like digital recording and wireless broadband has come to mean that our mistakes will be widely broadcast — typically without context or rights of rebuttal — exposing us to unprecedented public scrutiny.
But I do not understand the widespread impulse to shame those whose best intentions unfortunately result in imperfect actions. What would our world be like if no one ever took a chance? What if everyone played it safe?
Sites like YouTube and Twitter host forums in which everyday people are subjected to the kinds of excoriation we have typically reserved for politicians and celebrities — those whose public and private actions, due to their vocations, are judged within the public sphere.
In recent years, however, earnest mistakes made by ordinary, unknown people have increasingly become national topics, their errors invoking astonishing amounts of political fury and having unanticipated impact on their careers, families, and futures.
Reaction to the footage containing my errors has resulted in months of scrutiny and most recently the loss of my job.
While I never used my authority as a professor in the actions I took, the University of Missouri’s Collected Rules and Regulations, the guidelines that govern my employment, indicate that standards of excellence do not equate to perfection.
MU has procedures in place to evaluate faculty whose conduct has come into question, but the Board of Curators, under pressure from a state legislature holding MU’s annual budget hostage, has refused to follow those procedures. Instead, the Curators’ actions — and the nationwide public outcry over these few recorded moments of my actions — wholly disregard the overwhelming evidence of my outstanding contributions to MU: student evaluations, teaching awards, research and publications, service to professional organizations, and a solid case for tenure.
While I continue to fight the MU Board of Curators’ decision to terminate my employment without due process and in violation of university policy, I am also working to come to terms with how a few captured moments of imperfection could eclipse 12 years of excellence.
But beyond my specific circumstances, I believe this situation raises broader cultural, ethical, and legal questions about how surveillance and social media significantly impact the terrain of public engagement.
Whose interests are served when our drive to combat societal imperfections is defeated by fears of having our individual imperfections exposed?
And what value do our rights as citizens have in a culture increasingly ruled by snap judgments and by regulations that are easily rewritten to suit changing political interests?
We should all be concerned about the larger issues my situation raises.
I don’t want to live in a world where citizens are too afraid of public scorn to take a chance. Do you?