Nearly three months after student protests at the University of Missouri forced the resignation of the school system president and spurred anti-racism demonstrations across the country, the college town of Columbia, Mo., remains in deep turmoil.
In the latest controversy to divide the community, Mizzou’s Board of Curators voted Wednesday to suspend Melissa Click, the assistant professor caught on camera pushing a student journalist and calling for “some muscle” to remove him from a protest camp.
“The Board of Curators directs the General Counsel, or outside counsel selected by General Counsel, to immediately conduct an investigation and collaborate with the city attorney and promptly report back to the Board so it may determine whether additional discipline is appropriate,” the board said in a statement.
The suspension came a day after the city prosecutor’s decision to file a misdemeanor assault charge against Click over the incident, but it fell short of state legislators’ demands that Click be fired.
The suspension also came on the same day the school’s ousted president, Tim Wolfe, issued a scathing letter slamming his successor as president, the Board of Curators, other university leaders and even the school’s football team, which backed the protests.
“The football team’s actions were the equivalent of throwing gasoline on a small fire,” Wolfe wrote, adding that the players’ boycott had hurt enrollment and cost the school more than $25 million. “The end result could be a financial catastrophe for our university.”
As with the protests and Wolfe’s ouster, Click’s suspension has stirred intense emotions on all sides.
Mark Schierbecker, the videographer whose camera Click grabbed, called the suspension “vindicating” but said he was frustrated that school administrators did not act more quickly or directly.
“The university seems to care more about protecting their own despotic faculty than looking after the welfare of its students,” he told The Washington Post on Wednesday night.
But Click’s supporters expressed outrage, claiming that the suspension was unprecedented and that the professor was a scapegoat.
“Since when do UM … Curators make personnel decisions?” tweeted local lawyer and small-business owner Carolyn Sullivan. “Tired of [double] standards [for] women & witch [hunt] against Click.”
Since when do UM Bd of Curators make personnel decisions? Tired of dble standards 4 women & witch hint against Click. #StandWithMelissaClick
— Carolyn Sullivan (@CarolynGSully) January 28, 2016
Many of Click’s supporters said she had already paid far too stiff a price for a momentary lapse. The professor was widely criticized for impeding Schierbecker and another journalist, photographer Tim Tai. She also received a flood of angry, often threatening messages.
“I have been receiving rape and death threats and am concerned for my safety,” Click said in an email to her students.
She also apologized to the two journalists — although Schierbecker did not accept the apology — and resigned a courtesy appointment in Mizzou’s prestigious School of Journalism.
On Monday, before Click’s suspension, the professor’s conduct was the subject of an hour-long debate in the state senate.
Sen. Brian Munzlinger insisted that Click should be fired for violating university rules requiring employees “not to bring discredit upon the institution,” according to the Columbia Tribune.
“We’re the laughingstock of the country,” he added.
Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, however, said Click’s critics were using the professor as a distraction from the real issue on campus: racism.
“We are reminded as people of color every single day that we are not treated as 100 percent human being,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “And that is why we are still dealing with it every single day is that we are not being treated equally. This conversation about Professor Click is just a cover-up, for real, for saying we don’t like black people talking out loud.”
The debate over Click’s future is just one of several issues still dividing the community in the wake of the November protests.
Many of those fault lines were again exposed in Wolfe’s letter. In the lengthy document, Wolfe slams students, football players, the team’s coach and university administrators while simultaneously appealing for support in his negotiations for severance pay.
“I resigned out of love for MU and the rest of the system and I felt that it was the right thing to do at the time to prevent further embarrassment and a potential Ferguson-like event on the MU Campus,” he wrote near the beginning of the letter. “What I haven’t shared with you or the general public is the series of events and circumstances and specific unconscionable behaviors that led to my resignation. Because there has been no resolution, I now have grave concerns about the future of the University.”
Writing that he had turned down multiple media offers, Wolfe lamented that his “silence has resulted in my name being attached unfairly to the issues of racism and incompetent leadership.
“As I have stated, I am willing to accept some of the responsibility for what happened,” he said, before blaming Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin and the Board of Curators for caving “into politicians and special interest groups with agendas that are contrary to the mission of the university.”
Wolfe saved some of his harshest words for the football team, which refused to play until the president stepped down.
“The football team’s decision to strike is what actually brought most of the national attention to our university,” Wolfe wrote. “In hindsight, the $1 million penalty associated with forfeiting the game against BYU would have paled in comparison to the more than $25 million in lost tuition and fees MU will realize with reduced enrollment this Fall.” He did not explain how he arrived at the $25 million figure.
“It’s also a pittance of the threatened loss of state funding that could be as much as $500 million. Unfortunately, MU Athletic Director Mack Rhoades, Coach [Gary] Pinkel and Bowen Loftin all failed to communicate with system officials on this matter,” he wrote. “The football team’s actions were the equivalent of throwing gasoline on a small fire. Coach Pinkel missed an important opportunity to teach his players a valuable life lesson. The end result could be a financial catastrophe for our university.”
— JB. (@_JonathanButler) November 8, 2015
Wolfe also accused his replacement, interim president Michael Middleton, of having a “long-term” friendship with Jonathan Butler, the leader of the Concerned Student 1950 protest movement who went on a hunger strike to demand Wolfe’s resignation.
“Why did the Board of Curators decide to hire the leader who had failed miserable [sic] in his capacity as the long time leader on diversity issues on the MU Campus?” Wolfe asked. “Why did Michael Middleton choose not to stop the growing protest in spite of his relationship with Jonathan Butler and the minority students on the MU campus?”
The former president also accused the Board of Curators of using its position to leak details of confidential board meetings, “dig up dirt” and “further personal agendas.”
Finally, Wolfe complained that he had been stiffed on compensation compared with Loftin, who agreed to step down at the end of the year and who Wolfe accused of making a series of errors.
“Since my resignation over two months ago, I have been trying to reach an agreement with the Board as to what my role might be and the compensation that is appropriate based on my almost four years as president,” he wrote. “After the first month of minimal progress I had to engage an attorney and the Board of Curators suggested mediation — which proved unsuccessful. All negotiations with the board have stopped and I’m left with the options of either accepting a small fraction of the total compensation that I could have made if I had stayed through the end of my contract, or to litigate which would involve going public with the reasons as to why I was the target of Concerned Student 1950.”
Wolfe ended his letter by calling for the board to “do the right thing, not what is politically or legally correct,” and asking donors to “express your concern over the current situation and tell [board members] to resolve my contract negotiation so that I can continue to play a significant positive role in the future.”
Between the letter and Click’s suspension, the university found itself back in the national spotlight for all the wrong reasons Wednesday. (The embarrassment didn’t end there for Mizzou, however, as the football team’s quarterback, Maty Mauk, was suspended for a third time on Tuesday after a video surfaced allegedly showing him snorting a line of white powder, according to the Columbia Tribune.)
The university now finds itself in serious trouble, with a falling number of freshman applications and the prospect of funding cuts from angry state legislators. Its basketball and football teams, usually a source of pride, have played too poorly to offer locals a distraction from the protests and their fallout.
And while many students, particularly African Americans, argue that the protests exposed long-simmering issues of racism on campus, few people have emerged unscathed from the demonstrations.
Schierbecker’s video of Click, for example, has taken a toll on both sides of the camera. Since the clip went viral, Schierbecker has been accused of deliberately undermining the protests or of being racist. And while 117 state legislators signed a petition calling for Click to be fired, an equal number of MU faculty signed a petition supporting her. Among them was the head of Schierbecker’s own department, he said, leaving him with an awkward final 18 months at the school.
“Extremely divisive” is how Schierbecker described the atmosphere on campus. So much so, in fact, that it was only when he and Tai visited the University of Georgia last week to present on press freedom that Schierbecker felt accepted.
“It was kind of a relief,” he told The Post, “because half the people in the room didn’t hate me.”
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