I have been watching the events at my alma mater that led to the resignation of MU System President Tim Wolfe and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin from afar. While I had heard inklings of discontent, I had no idea it was at this point until the football team got involved.
Do I believe there is racism in Columbia, Missouri? Probably. Just like there probably is anywhere else in society. As a white male, I am probably not in a position to fully understand.
From the published reports, the protesters’ complaints appear to be isolated events that were handled poorly by the school administration or without enough concern. Part of the students’ concerns centered on how their protest at the Homecoming Parade was handled which you can watch here. Things also did not go well when Wolfe was confronted in Kansas City a few weeks later.
Another complaint centers on racist taunts by unknown passersby to the African American young man who was elected student body president and homecoming king. Painting an entire school as racist, a school that elects a gay African American student to be president and homecoming king, is unfair. You can read about the events that led to the resignations here.
Should the administration have handled it better? Obviously. Letting it get to the point where the football team threatened not to play means it wasn’t handled the right way and probably left the school with few options.
Were the protestors’ demands unreasonable? Probably. Asking the system president to write a handwritten apology to the Concerned Student 1950 demonstrators and hold a press conference reading the letter while acknowledging his “white male privilege” and admitting to “gross negligence” takes away from the otherwise legitimate concerns raised. To throw in some law in the discussion, demanding racial quotas for the faculty and staff (“We demand that by the academic year 2017/2018, the University of Missouri increases the percentage of black faculty and staff campuswide to 10%) is probably unconstitutional.
One of the students then began a public hunger strike until the demands were met. Then, the football team got involved and refused to play until the hunger strike ended. Head coach Gary Pinkel supported his players. Was this the right move? It certainly moved the needle, but I worry about whether a handful of players and then the team, as a whole, were leveraged. It is both encouraging, and somewhat alarming, to see young men take their position of prestige as SEC college football players and use it to get involved. Will this set a precedent and where is the line? Reading Tigerboard (admittedly not a place for cool-headed, well-reasoned analysis), the fan reaction was certainly mixed.
About 24 hours after the football team’s actions became public, the president resigned followed by the chancellor. Although the chancellor’s resignation becomes effective at the end of the year and may have had more to do with issues other than the handling the student protests. Ironically, the football team may be worse off with a new chancellor less supportive of the athletics department.
In response, Mizzou has promised to implement changes within the next 90 days which include:
- The creation of a new position for a Chief Diversity, Inclusion and Equity Officer within the UM System which has already been filled on an interim basis
- A review of UM System policies regarding staff and student conduct
- Additional support for students, faculty and staff who have “experienced discrimination and disparate treatment”
- Additional support for the hiring and retention of diverse faculty and staff
- the creation of system-wide and campus-based diversity, inclusion and equity task forces
- an education training program for holders of the university’s top leadership positions
Had the administration taken these steps prior to the football team’s involvement, would there have been two resignations? We may never know because we don’t know what would have happened with the hunger strike and what would the reaction have been had the administration gone 90% of the way but not conceded to all of the demands (which they could have never done). It may have gone a long way to assuage opinion of the public and maybe, more importantly, the football team.
Yes, this story does speak to better crisis communication techniques and the importance of getting in front of a controversy. The number one lesson for crisis communications is to be prepared and to have a plan. Once the controversy began, the school should have had a singular unified message.
If bombarded off campus (or even during the Homecoming Parade), the proper response would have been a polite refusal to engage at that time as it was not the appropriate time and place. There could have been a somewhat prepared “holding statement” such as “we take these issues seriously and are taking steps to ensure that every student is provided the best environment we can provide. This is not the time or place to get into the specifics, but we will be providing more details soon and invite continued discussions on the topic in the near future.” It would not have placated the protesters at the time, but it would not have added more fuel to the fire. A flagship state university is a much different animal than a private business, but the same basic tenets apply.
But, I justify this longer than usual and personal musing based on what happened next. Watch this:
As my wife gets tired of hearing, the University of Missouri is home of the best journalism school in the world. (I linked to something so it has to be true!) The student journalist handled this situation perfectly. The protestors — not so much.
Here are some basics about the First Amendment. The protesters have a right protest in the public parts of campus. And, yes, the very same First Amendment gives the journalists the right to cover the story from public property.
For the legal wonks, the Carnahan Quadrangle is very likely a limited or designated public forum being that it is on a university campus. Content-based speech restrictions are therefore subject to strict scrutiny. The school, however, can put reasonable time, place and manner restrictions as long as the restrictions serve an important governmental interest and the restrictions are narrowly tailored to serve that important governmental interest.
No one kept the protestors from doing their thing. Instead, the protestors tried to keep the media from doing theirs – covering the protest, which ironically is normally what protestors want. It is true that journalists have no greater rights than non-journalists when it comes to accessing public property, but when you engage in a protest on public property, you can’t claim some of the public property as your own. The journalists had a right to be anywhere on the public grounds to cover the story.
More troubling, however, was the conduct of some of the Mizzou faculty who, in my opinion, mistreated the journalist and should have known better. For example, near the end of the video, a Mizzou professor of mass media (with the School of Communications and not the School of Journalism) tried to grab the camera and then yelled, “Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here.” Ironically (a repeated theme to this story), this same professor had asked for media attention a few days prior. Unfortunately, this strange treatment of journalists is detracting from the protester’s efforts to further their true cause.
I don’t believe MU System President Tim Wolfe, or Chancellor R. Bowin Loftin, or Mizzou itself, is, in any way, racist. They could have handled the situation better and reacted quicker. Their downfall is a result of that failure. But, shouldn’t we hold the protesters, or at least the faculty that joins the protesters, to the same standard? The faculty member could have handled it better and, perhaps there should be some repercussions, on her end. The School of Journalism has already started distancing themselves from the faculty member and released this statement in support of the journalists. (Here’s another perspective from a law professor at Mizzou and more from one my former instructors at the J-School, Stacey Woelfel).
The bad news is that it looks like two men who worked hard and wanted the best for the university lost their jobs. Another person who appeared to be a well-liked professor may lose hers, too. The whole thing is a circus.
The good news is the hunger strike is over, there may be some changes to redress the situation, and hopefully both the administration and the protesters can learn from this.
For the rest of us, life will go on and I will continue to support my alma mater from afar. After all, there is a football game to played on Saturday.
Update: The professor in the video has apologized and resigned from her “courtesy appointment” with the J-School.