Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Race At Mizzou: Comments on the Events of Last Week.

All week long people have been asking me about events at The University of Missouri, a system which serves 77,000 students across four campuses.  For those of you who don't know, what started as a hunger strike by a single student over the racial climate on campus garnered national attention when the football team decided they would not play football until the system-wide president, Tim Wolfe, stepped down.  He subsequently resigned along with Mizzou Chancellor Bowen Loftin.

Since Saturday, I have had numerous conversations with family and friends both in person and online.  They have been illuminating to say the least.  Even after all the reporting, the events seem too incredulous for many.  So I thought I would weigh in.   For the record, I am a White, male faculty member who has been here for 15 years and has no expertise in race relations.  This is my take; use it as you will.

Why the hunger strike?

If you read the media, you might think the hunger strike and protests were about one very gross swastika written in human excrement.   And you would be wrong.  The hunger strike, along with a series of protests, are motivated by calls to the administration to understand the racial climate and take concrete steps to improve it.

So, what is the racial climate at Mizzou?

According to the students and faculty, whom I fully believe, there are repeated incidents of overt racial hostility such as use of the N-word.  This is not to say that all Black people are called the N-word every day.  But it happens, and it happens far too often.  One of the more infamous incidences was the spreading of cotton balls at the Black Cultural Center.  Nothing says, "You are slaves and you don't belong here" like cotton.  (Infuriating aside: the perpetrators were convicted of littering.)  While overt racism is pretty easy to spot, no less difficult is covert racism.  More than a small fraction of White students wonder if that Black students are here because they are Black.  Black students rarely receive the same benefit of the doubt, and their place on campus is under constant but subtle assault.  And well-meaning White allies are often allies not out of any deep empathy for the experiences of Black students, but to feel better about themselves.  How many White people know a Black person in more than just a passing role?  How many know their story; how many siblings they have; where they grew up; what were the formative moments in their lives?

I suspect the racial climate here is about the same as it is on most campuses. Even so, Mizzou is intimately tied to St. Louis.  We are St. Louis' little school in Columbia, and St. Louis is one of the most segregated, disparate, inequitable cities in the US.  We necessarily have St. Louis' racial problems.  And the events here need to be viewed in the context of racial justice in the wake of Ferguson, just 100 miles away.

Aren't the Protesters Oversensitive Crybabies?

Times have changed, and we need to change with them.  Up to about 15 years ago, perhaps every single men's bathroom stall in America had a disparaging comment about gays, women, Blacks, or Jews.  It was so common that nobody I knew thought anything of it.  It just what was on bathrooms, along with toilets and toilet paper.  As kids, we called each other all sorts of epithets.   The most common insult was "you're so gay."  We were not sensitive enough then.  Period.   I like our newfound sensitivity.  It is a good thing.  Why should I have to experience swastikas in bathrooms.  Fuck that.  Why should these kids have to tolerate any indignities related to their Blackness?  Let's agree that racist assholes have the right to say what they do; the rest of us have the right to be pissed off about it and isolate them.  We also have the right to have our leaders condemn them and develop a culture that  isolates them.

Outsiders should know the true character of these impressive young people who protested.  They were cool, collected, and focused.  I never saw any hint of aggression or violence or even recriminations.   Other than the media, everyone was welcome.  Two elements were evident in the protest:  The first was God's grace. These young people had a love of people that they attributed to their love of God.  It was a theme, and it was the an instantiation of the best of Christianity.  The second was intersectionality.   Intersectionality refers to a common set of dynamics that marginalized people may experience due to race, religion, ethnicity, gender, gender orientation, position in society, disability, etc.  The protesters clearly understood intersectionality and saw their protest rooted in an administration that had not responded to graduate-student rights, had been slow to respond campus rape culture, and had been hostile toward Planned Parenthood.  This is not to say that all young people held this intersectionality, but it was in the consciousness in the Concerned Student 1950 leaders.

Was It Fair To Call For Wolfe's Head?

There is nothing that has perplexed outsiders as much as the protesters call for Wolfe's resignation.  "What did Wolfe do?" asked Joe Scarborough.  Tim Wolfe has a sterling reputation in town as a genuine nice guy and a tireless advocate for the University.  In actuality, he is not responsible for the campus racial climate---it is the Chancellor's responsibility.   So, it might seem that Wolfe was a victim.  People in town are upset that a good man was railroaded, and they are equally upset with the lack of process.  It is obvious to me that Wolfe cares deeply about the University.  To his credit, his resignation was voluntary and he did so without any severance package.

Nonetheless, Wolfe suffered perhaps two self-inflicted wounds.  Had he avoided either of them, he probably would be system president today.  Here they are:  1. Wolfe was not sufficiently empathetic to the plight of Black students on campus.  He froze when the students stopped his car at homecoming, and did not go out and talk to them.  He was defensive when he approached the protesters at a KC fundraiser.  There he said systematic oppression is, "when you believe you don't have the same opportunity."  In this response, it was painfully and nakedly obvious that he put the onus back on the students.  Perhaps it is no coincidence that the football team made their boycott decision the very next day.  The bottom line is that there is the impression that Wolfe did not or could not feel for his students.  Perhaps if Tim Wolfe had a diversity course at Mizzou or Harvard he would have been more empathetic.  2. Wolfe was too ideological in his corporate orientation.  Wolfe seemingly ran the University like a mid-cap technology company.  Except the University is far more varied and organic than a company.  Wolfe alienated faculty by treating them as dispensable labor.   He had each campus set strategic plans but gave us few resources to meet them.  Instead, he made the units give back 2% of their budgets to systemwide to redistribute to meet these goals.  We were suppose to hire superstar senior faculty to improve our research reputation.  It is a very expensive, difficult, and  slow way of improving.  And it by-and-large failed.  If you are in an underrated, out-of-the-way, difficult-to-travel-to, small city like Columbia, the best strategy is to hire hungry, appreciative junior faculty.   Loyalty comes from sound development of these junior faculty.    My department's experience is illustrative.  We have not been able to hire, and after this year we will be comprised of 35 senior  and 2 junior members.  That is an unhealthy proportion.   Additionally, raises were too draconian and too inequitable.  In one year, the top few performers received 20% and the rest received virtually nothing.  The next year there were no raises at all.  Morale plummetted.  Previously, I had always felt respected at Mizzou not only by my department but by the administration.  This year, in contrast, I felt respected by my  department but not by the administration.  Instead, I felt disposable.

By last week, Wolfe had few allies among the faculty on the Mizzou campus.  I suspect if he had simply listened fearlessly to the students with an empathetic ear or had been doing better by the bulk of the faculty and staff, he would still be here.


What About Chancellor Loftin?

One of the least appreciated aspects of this story is the forced resignation of Chancellor Loftin.  He had actually won over the support of the protestors, and they wanted him to stay on.  Instead, he was forced out by the deans.  In an unprecedented move, nine of the dozen or so deans got together and publicly called for his resignation.  It was a mutiny.  And for the record, they did so before Wolfe resigned though the letter was published afterwards.  It was a brave and unprecedented action.  And it was the right thing to do, and had not the deans done so, more and more departments or perhaps the faculty body would have formally expressed no confidence.   Loftin was a deeply flawed leader whose actions, words, and deeds led to his forced resignation.  I would rather not spend any more time on this part of the story.

What Actions Could the Administration Have Taken About Race?

Many view Wolfe as unfairly victimized.  I argued above that his inability to address students and his alienation of the faculty through an extreme business view of the University were factors in his undoing.  Yet, unaddressed is the all-important question about official University policy and action to address the racial climate.  Here is some background as I understand it.  Our former chancellor, Brady Deaton, said all the right things.  He started a Chancellor's Diversity Initiative and a unity campaign called, "One Mizzou."  We had a Chief Diversity Officer and the department had a commitment from administration that if we could hire minority faculty they would help with funding.  The number of Black undergraduate students has doubled since 2000, which is faster than the pace of overall student growth.

But the momentum stalled around 2010.  Diversity became more about Mizzou's image than any real culture change.  One Mizzou  was coopted into a slogan to sell football tickets; diversity was about getting the right colored students on the brochures and webpages.   Black faculty were resigning at the same rate they were being hired, often after just a few years here.  The faculty voted against a diversity-course requirement.   The chief diversity officer resigned and left, and was replaced by a staff person without tenure rather than a faculty member with tenure.  As the strategic focus at Mizzou shifted to research, diversity was shoved aside.

I will defer to more knowledgable others about what should be done.  Clearly, what we need is fearless listening and good will from faculty, administrators, and students.  We also need resources.  I suspect Mizzou probably has a Black faculty retention problem that needs critical attention.  I do not know if the reasons why Black faculty leave at the rate they do has been thoroughly explored or what can be done, but retention should clearly come into the spotlight.

The Blowback.

The most distressing consequence to me has been the severe blowback.  Individuals have had death threats made against them, and three white students terrorized the campus with threats of mass violence.  Outsiders have made up fake twitter accounts posting horrible things to discredit the protesters.  And we have been excoriated in the right-wing media.  Politicians lambast us, including those who control our purse strings.  Around town and across the state, people view the events negatively.   Some people are worried that we are or will be viewed as a racist, backwater, redneck place.  Some people are worried that White people will feel threatened.  It has been demoralizing and emotionally exhausting to say the least.

I am Proud of Mizzou.

I think the events of last week were hugely positive.  The Black students went from marginal to central, and their voices were truly heard perhaps for the first time.  The institution through its own dynamics asserted to the Curators, to the politicians, and to the people of Missouri that we are a university rather than a business.  We have our own culture and dynamics that cannot be micromanaged by political interests.

Mizzou is embarking on a difficult conversation about diversity.  I think much good will come of it, and we have already become a better institution for the protests.  We are now leading, stay tuned.