If you follow American higher education, you probably know a lot about the 2015 protests at the University of Missouri, and much of what you know is probably wrong.
With almost three years of distance, we can look more critically at what happened. In a forthcoming article available online, I detail the events giving rise to Mizzou’s protests, the protests themselves and how university leaders mishandled the situation. In particular, administrators disliked one another and could not work together effectively, Mizzou moved slowly in situations that demanded quickness, top leaders did not speak with one voice about important matters and the university’s governing board and president’s office did not make use of potential sources of information.
Higher education leaders nationwide can avoid making the same mistakes.
In November 2015, reporters descended upon Columbia, Mo., to cover a graduate student’s hunger strike, protesters sleeping on Carnahan Quadrangle and a boycott of football team activities by Mizzou athletes. Soon afterward, our campus chancellor and system president resigned on the same day.
To some, this was a triumph for student activists and the cause of racial justice. For others, this was an example of university leaders capitulating to the demands of petulant youths, the epitome of political correctness run amok.
In addition, on the day of the resignations, a Mizzou professor was filmed arguing with a student on a university quad and jostling the camera the student had been using to film protesters. The university eventually fired the professor. To some, the professor’s behavior exemplified hostility to free speech that allegedly afflicts American universities. To others, she was a well-meaning professor — concerned about her students — who messed up (as she admitted) and then faced disproportionate punishment motivated, at least in part, by hostility toward the black student activists the professor supported.
I urge you to read the full article and to draw your own conclusions. For now, consider some common misconceptions about what happened in Columbia in 2015 and 2016:
Myth No. 1: President Tim Wolfe and Chancellor Bowen Loftin were fired from leadership because the university caved to unreasonable demands of student protesters who played the “race card,” offering “further proof that political correctness on university campuses has a stranglehold on common sense.”
Reality: Loftin was under attack from deans with grievances totally unrelated to racial politics, before any protests began. Wolfe was inexperienced and unsuited for his position, which the protests revealed. Had he handled the protests better — as happens on campuses nationwide every year — he probably could have avoided resigning.
Myth No. 2: Mizzou has a terrible racial climate unusual for American universities.
Reality: Mizzou has had its share of racist incidents, but the magnitude of the 2015 protests and the resulting fallout are better explained by how poorly the university handled the protests, not by concluding that Mizzou is especially unfriendly to students of color. The grievances raised at Mizzou could have been aired at nearly any university.
Myth No. 3: Mizzou is a hotbed of political correctness at which white students are under attack and face constant demands to acknowledge — or “check” — their privilege.
Reality: Mizzou is engaged in the same diversity and inclusion efforts now in progress across American academia, efforts that began in response to real injustices resulting from centuries of discrimination. Some white students will feel aggrieved, but the programs designed to promote cultural competency at Mizzou are similar to those at other institutions.
The boring (yet scary) truth is that rather than being a notable incubator of either white supremacy or anti-white “reverse racism,” Mizzou has the same racial problems as much of America. We just managed to become famous by handling a few racially charged incidents exceptionally poorly.
The good news for Mizzou is that better management in the future can help us avoid repeating our mistakes. The bad news for leaders of other institutions is that because our underlying situation is all too common, you can suffer the same bad results if you fail to learn from Mizzou’s errors.
Going forward, performing the complex dance that went so poorly at Mizzou will become yet another skill demanded of a successful university president or chancellor. In addition to overseeing subordinates as diverse as medical school deans, student affairs directors and chief budget officers; public speaking; fundraising; deciding tenure cases, and managing crises, a campus leader will be expected to provide enough progress on racial justice to avoid the sort of debilitating events seen at Mizzou in 2015.
If one accepts that the Mizzou protests resulted from a shortage of justice, another myth is exposed:
Myth No. 4: The Mizzou protesters deserve “blame” for the financial hardships the university suffered in the years immediately following the protests. The university is paying — in the form of lost tuition dollars — for the students’ bad behavior, or perhaps for the foolishness of board members who “caved” to the demands of students.
Reality: The conditions that the students protested were the true cause of the lost tuition, and had university leaders addressed them earlier or with greater tact, things probably would have gone differently.
Chances are, a “new normal” has arrived in American higher education. Minority students have again awakened to their power, and the very education that universities provides helps them to understand just how much injustice there is to protest. Absent a remarkable and unexpected national racial reconciliation, campuses will continue to be home to intelligent, motivated activists for racial justice.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. observed during the March on Washington in 1963, “In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check.” He noted that while the beautiful words of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution promised liberty for all Americans, “instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ ”
Like the Declaration, the founding documents of American universities similarly proclaimed their plans to provide the bounty of education to all qualified students. And they too bestowed their blessings upon only some Americans, leaving others behind. Administrators should expect continued efforts to cash checks drawn upon the promises universities have made.
Ben Trachtenberg is an associate professor of law at the University of Missouri. He chaired the university’s Faculty Council from 2015 to 2017.
The former president of the University of Missouri System did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. The University of Missouri System offered a response to this piece, which you can read here.