What in the world ?

Two people are standing at the railing of an ocean liner gazing at the miles of Pacific Ocean all around them.  Nothing is out there but water.  All the way to the horizon.  All the way around them.

“Sure is a lot of water,” one observes.

“Yeah,” says the other.  “And that’s just the top of it.”

This observer has been getting emails from friends as far away as Vancouver and Los Angeles who have been watching, hearing, and reading about things happening at the University of Missouri for the last several days.  In various ways they have asked, “What in the world is going on at the University of Missouri?”  What follows will be long and does not pretend to be an analysis that will preclude other thoughts or actions that disagree or contribute to consensus.

The reporting of the way events have spiraled and spread has been most comparable to that first observer on the ocean liner: “Sure is a lot of water.”   That is not a criticism of the reporting.  Those who have been on the ground as journalists in situations such as this and—more prominently, in Ferguson last year—know that when you are being swept along by the tide there isn’t much time to think about how the coral was formed ten feet below you.  The same often is true for those who are drawn into participation in those events.  Thinking about the deeper issues that are involved or the deeper consequences that might result becomes secondary.   Passing judgment on participants, whether demonstrators, administrators, reporters, observers—the list could be longer if we try to think of more categories—is easily done from a distance and the situation becomes more complicated when others with other agendas try to capitalize on it.

So, to answer the friends and neighbors who have asked, “What in the world is going on…?” we offer some observations.  They are made from a short geographical distance and they are made by someone who is no longer in the business of being in the middle of the events or in a newsroom.

VIOLENCE

This is an important thing to remember.  No buildings were set on fire.  No roving gangs of demonstrators were going up and down Ninth Street throwing bricks through windows and looting businesses.  As far as we know, guns were not part of the demonstration(s) and nobody was hurt.  Some headlines were generated when a reporter and a cameraman were pushed around in a regrettable incident but the students who advocated a non-violent protest achieved that goal.  While some of their actions might be properly questioned, let us not lose sight of the fact that this is one incident that did not turn violent.

But their activities have created image problems or feared image problems for the university, for some of its schools, and the athletic department.  Andrew Kloster, a legal fellow with the Heritage Foundation, has written of what he calls “mob rule…in higher education.”  He writes about recent disturbances at Yale and the disturbances in Columbia, “Both situations involve student activists disrupting education, allegedly on behalf of education…At Mizzou, activists claimed that failing to deal with ‘structural racism’ was harming their education.  Both groups listed not specific harms, but rather vague interest in feeling good at their university.”

That kind of reaction, nationally circulated, is not what the protestors want to hear or want to hear said about them.   What can it teach them?  What can be learned from these experiences?  Is the result as simple as Kloster suggests?

Nobody was hurt in these protests.  At least not physically.  That’s important to remember.

WHO IS AND WHO IS NOT GONE

University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe is gone.  Columbia Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin is gone.  This observer met both of them during a meeting a few months ago and found both of them personally likable.  Wolfe was candid in our discussions and represented the university well.  Perhaps ironically, one of the products of our meeting was a resolution of some communications problems between the group I was with and the university.  Loftin, I thought, was approachable and willing to discuss the issues we brought to the table.  That’s a personal impression drawn from a single hour-long meeting.  I was not left with any perspective on relations between the people in University Hall and the people who were on the campus.  But clearly, those who saw things on a daily basis had distinctly different impressions.

Who’s still there?  A guy in the pickup truck.  A drunk white guy who went where he wasn’t wanted at the Legion of Black Collegians meeting.  The person who scrawled the feces swastika in a bathroom.  A spirit of intolerance that bubbles under all of society, occasionally seeping to the surface.  And intolerance knows no sides.  They’re still there.

THE EVENTS

Critics on the campus felt the school administration was detached and unresponsive.  On Monday, the day Wolfe resigned and Loftin announced he would be stepping down, the deans of nine of the university’s colleges asked that the Board of Curators to fire Loftin.  They cited a “multitude of crises” on the Columbia campus.  They said they had met with Wolfe and Loftin as well as Provost Garnett Stokes twice in October but had seen the issues they talked about continue to deteriorate.

A day earlier the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures notified curators that 28 of the department’s thirty faculty members had expressed no confidence in Loftin. The other two faculty members abstained.  A few days earlier, the English Department faculty had voted 26-0 for a no-confidence motion targeting Loftin.  Two faculty members abstained.

Loftin also was the center of other controversies including the elimination of health insurance for graduate assistants who teach many of the school’s classes.  The insurance was later reinstated. He also was unpopular because of the dismissal of the Vice Chancellor for Health Sciences.

He also was in the middle of a partisan political criticism about a doctor with some privileges at University Hospital doing abortions at the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Columbia.  As usual lately, anything to do with Planned Parenthood became an issue of political capital that transcended rational discussion. The situation has reached the absurd stage that one state senator wanting to firm up pro-life support in a statewide candidacy has demanded the university tell a graduate student to stop studying whether a 72-hour waiting period for an abortion really accomplishes anything.

One side claims it was absolutely right and the university is absolutely wrong. And when the absolutely right side is the one that controls the university’s budget, academic freedom can become expendable—or at least a perception can arise that it is.  The university revoked the doctor’s privileges at the hospital.  Planned Parenthood and its supporters charged the university over-reacted.  As far as we know, the graduate student is still researching.

Student demonstrators aimed their biggest complaints at Wolfe.  An incident early in the school year in which someone in a pickup truck shouted “Nigger” at the student body president Payton Head appears to have begun the unrest. Several days later, a white man, described as drunk, interrupted a meeting of the Legion of Black Collegians and complained, “These niggers are getting aggressive with me” when the group showed him he was not welcome.

An incident during the homecoming parade last month, though, is what seems to have really gotten things rolling.   A group of black students stopped in front of the car carrying Wolfe and started talking about the school’s history of racial incidents since its founding in 1839.  Wolfe did not react and the driver of the car tried to move around the group and bumped a couple of the students.

About then, graduate student Jonathan Butler said he wouldn’t eat until Wolfe quit. Four days later, November 6, Wolfe issued a statement and an apology that seemed weak to the students in the homecoming parade event, and to the students whose resentment about administration detachment from campus concerns continued to simmer.  Wolfe admitted that the situation might not have deteriorated if he had gotten out of his car during the parade and talked with the students.

Or would such an action only have compounded the disturbance that day?  It’s easy to second-guess on that issue.  Many will argue the students were out of line by stopping Wolfe’s car at all, let alone for several minutes before the blockade was ended.

This writer recalls an incident in the Missouri Senate a couple of years ago when a group led by a number of ministers entered the gallery of the senate and stopped floor action with songs, prayers, and statements urging expansion of the Medicaid program.  Several were arrested and charged.  Their cases have yet to come to trial.  One of their arguments would be familiar to the students: they were frustrated by inaction on the part of those who could do something to deal with the problems they perceived.

And so a fair question has to be asked.  What is left when you think the powers-that-be are not responsive to perceived serous issues you have raised?

The organizers of the demonstrations, Concerned Student 1-9-5-0, (1950 was the year the university admitted its first black student) issued eight demands including an apology from Wolfe in which he would “acknowledge his white male privilege, recognize that systems of oppression exist, and provide a verbal commitment to fulfill (the organization’s) demands”.  The group demanded Wolfe’s removal and a presidential selection process involving faculty, staff, and students of diverse backgrounds.  The group wants a  mandatory “comprehensive racial awareness and inclusion curriculum in all departments,” increased percentages of black faculty and staff, more money for the university counseling center that will allow hiring of mental health professionals as well as increases in funding for social justice centers.

The demands and the rhetoric that appeared to some people as overcooked took the situation beyond discussion. By now, too, various political figures were weighing in with veiled suggestions that time was running out for Wolfe.

Then several members of the football team announced they supported the student group.

THE TEAM

The announced “strike” by several football players pushed the issue into national headlines.  International headlines in fact.  Suddenly the confrontation was on the BBC.  Suddenly it was on the national networks.   And it put the coaching staff in a difficult position in what already has been a difficult year.  They’ve already dealt with some unfortunate situations within the team this year apart from the win-loss record.  It was important that the team understand that it IS a team and this episode threatened to pit involved members against those who didn’t feel touched by the controversy.  Coach Gary Pinkel knew that however this event turned out, this incident had the potential to turn the locker room into at least two camps.  So the word went out that the whole team supported Jonathan Butler and was concerned about his health.  Pinkel has admitted, however, that some players were not enthusiastic about the “team” support of Butler.  And in a press conference after the resignations, he didn’t take a position on the departures of Wolfe and Loftin.

The upcoming game with Brigham Young was endangered.  The university could lose a million dollars and that was only a beginning.

There were doubtless some who immediately started thinking the football program was trying to run the university.  Some undoubtedly felt cancellation of the game, the season, the players’ scholarships would be appropriate because the players were getting outside their roles.   After all, the university is about education, not sports and—they might argue—the sports program was getting out of line.

Others could argue that athletes are also people and they do not give up being people just because they play sports.  In fact, some might argue on their behalf that the players’ actions were a recognition that some things are far more important than collegiate sports.   After all, these young men sit in classrooms with many of those who had pitched their tents on Carnahan Quadrangle.  They are not apart from them just because they play football.

The university basketball players also were talking about taking action, which coach Kim Anderson says he would have supported, when Wolfe resigned.

It is easy to dismiss the action of the football players and the backing they got from their coach and the school’s athletic director as the athletic department throwing its weight around.  But was it, really?  Or was it people who were students first creating by their actions a situation the athletic department had to deal with at a time when it had been only an observer that was focused on fulfilling its special role in the university?

Regardless, SEC coaches in their weekly teleconference praised Pinkel’s integrity in supporting his team.

The entrance of the football team into the picture made the news story, for whatever reason, one that could not be contained in Columbia. It went global. And nobody knew how much worse it could become if something didn’t happen at University Hall.

THE CHOICE

We don’t know and maybe will never know what kind of conversations were going on between the university administration and the curators.  We don’t know when or if somebody finally said, “Tim, the only way to end this situation is for you to leave.”   Or maybe he’s the one who told the curators that he realized there was no way the situation could be resolved as long as he stayed.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has reported the curators continued to support Wolfe, who left without any kind of a severance package.  The newspaper says that’s an indication he was not forced out.  But Loftin was a different case. The curators voted to assign him to a new job.  The newspaper says Loftin “made enemies out of deans, faculty and graduate students” and “frequently blindsided the curators with his decision making, stirring up controversies, then having to backtrack.”

http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/education/missteps-not-student-revolt-led-to-mizzou-chancellor-s-demise/article_f955e9cf-6fc8-5fb0-b2cc-1b798d53fccc.html

The student group wasted no time issuing new demands for an “immediate” meeting with the university system faculty council, curators, and with Governor Nixon “to discuss shared governance and create a system of holistic inclusion for all constituents,” as one of the group members, Marshall Allen, put it, saying the demands have to me met “in totality.”

The resignations create some breathing space.  There comes a time when heated rhetoric (“in totality,” for example) needs to be tempered so productive steps can be taken to produce change.   Shared governance?  That term as well as “a system of holistic inclusion” is good for pumping up a crowd.  Creating realistic definitions is harder.  The students are not going to run the University of Missouri.  Or the faculty.  But the point has to be acknowledged that the administration cannot be apart from the campus and the issues that personally touch those on it.

THE PROFS AND THE GREEK LADY

The Dean of the School of Journalism, David Kurpius, quickly put out a statement when a video went viral showing Professor Melissa Click helped block reporters from covering the post-resignation reactions of students in their encampment on the Carnahan Quadrangle.  The video showed Click calling for some “muscle” to help remove student Mark Schierbecker who was shooting video of a confrontation between freelance photographer Tim Tai and Janna Basler, the assistant director of Greek Life and Leadership.  Tai was shooting for ESPN News.

The video shows Basler telling Tai, “You need to back off.  Back off, go!”  When he asks her if she is with the Office of Greek Life, she responds, “No, my name is Concerned Student 1-9-5-0.”

Tai is heard saying that his First Amendment rights to be there are equal with the First Amendment rights of the students who have been demonstrating.

And a third person, identified as Professor Richard Callahan, the Chairman of Religious Studies, is shown with the protestors throwing up his hands to block the view Tai could get with his camera.

The J-School dean wanted to make it clear that Click is a member of the Department of Communications, which is part of the School of Arts and Sciences, not a member of the School of Journalism faculty.  The J-School also released a statement discussing how it had used the events of the last several days as teaching opportunities for future journalists.

The national reaction on social media and in mainline media to the actions of those faculty members has been generally severe.  The St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Click locked herself in the office all day Tuesday and at times could be heard sobbing.  At the end of the day she issued written apology for her actions, and said she had personally apologized to the journalists involved.  She resigned her tenuous tie to the Journalism School.  She had a “courtesy title” that let her serve on a graduate committee.  Although Tai says he has accepted Click’s apology, Schierbecker has told the Washington Post he has not.  “She made no acknowledgement that what she did was assault,” he told the newspaper.

Callahan is Click’s husband.  Thai has told the Post that he also has apologized “for getting in my face and yelling about it.” We’ve heard no word about whether his behavior also is being scrutinized.

Basler has been put on administrative leave and relieved of her duties as the Director of Greek Life while the investigation of her activities continues.  Tai says he’s had a personal meeting with Basler and has accepted her apologies.

There have been calls for the three to be fired.  Washington Post blogger Erik Wemple, for example, has written “These three university employees had a chance to stick up for free expression on Monday. Instead they stood up for coercion and darkness.”

Who’s right and who’s wrong in all of this?  From this reporter’s perspective (once a journalist, always a journalist), the students and the teachers were wrong.  The young journalists were legitimately trying to cover a story, to help listeners, viewers, and readers gain some kind of insight into the situation.  But this incident, as is the case with the larger activities, is not so black and white.   KBIA, the University’s public radio station that relies heavily on journalism students in its newsroom—and has done outstanding work in covering these events—published this story on its webpage:

http://kbia.org/post/rights-activists-and-media-no-clear-answer

And KBIA News Director Ryan Famuliner, a former Missourinet reporter, added some context to help people see “below the surface of it.”

http://kbia.org/post/4-things-you-might-have-wrong-about-mizzou-story

Tuesday, the day after the confrontations, protestors decided reporters were welcome at their encampment.  They took down signs telling the media to stay out and they passed out pages urging protestors to cooperate with the media.  The headline on the flyers said “Teachable Moment.”

OKAY, SO—–

We talked to a distressed former member of the Board of Curators the other day who fears these events have set a “horrible precedent.”   Some of those we have talked to who also have watched things from a distance suggest the university is in for an extremely difficult time finding someone to step into the president’s job.  “Who in his right mind would want it?” one person asked.

What has been accomplished by all of this shouting and pushing and demanding is that impediments the protesting students, graduate students, and faculty members saw to communications between the folks on campus and the folks in University Hall have been removed.  They’ve gotten the university’s attention.

Now, it appears, talking instead of shouting, discussing instead of demanding can start.

THE TEAM 2.0

No, the athletic department does not run the university.  It is, however, the most publicly prominent entity that represents it.  It would be nice if the public found the teaching of English, Journalism, Agriculture, Physics, Chemistry, Economics, and so forth to be something it would buy tickets to watch.  But the fact is the public is more likely to cheer for an All-American football or basketball player than it is to cheer for a Nobel Prize winner.  Another fact is that the university would continue to do its work educating students even if another fan never walks into Memorial Stadium.

However, the virtues of “the team” or as some of the players said, “the family,” should not dissipate as time passes and, in fact, might be good to keep in mind as the university re-shapes its administration.   Teams work when they share a common goal.  They fail when they break into factions.  Factionalism breeds resentment.  Resentment brings conflict.  And conflict destroys the family, the team.

Take a look at this effort to help us see below “the top of it.”

http://kbia.org/post/mizzou-football-sets-precedent-student-athlete-activism

One of the jobs of a coach is to hold the team together.  It would be fair to include questions to presidential candidates about how good a coach a new president and chancellor might need to be.

THE TEACHABLE MOMENT

One reason Click, Callahan, and Basler are in trouble is because they forgot that teachers remain teachers outside as well as inside the classroom. Whether the teachable moments represented by their apologies reverse the negative teachable moments of the confrontation with Tai and with Schierbecker is hard to determine.  Perhaps the changed attitude of the protestors the next day, when they removed the signs and welcomed reporters, indicates some learning has taken place.

Did the change of attitude represent a learning moment resulting from the teachable moment?  One would hope so, for students and teachers alike.

The events have created numerous teachable moments and they have provided learning moments as well.  And those moments go beyond the teaching and learning that might happen in the new diversity and social respect programs the university is moving toward.

POLITICS

Events such as these are potential minefields for politicians—witness the no-win situations Governor Nixon found himself in, or put himself in, last year in Ferguson.  These events also can be opportunities to say and advocate things that appeal to the public gut and gain some points for candidates and office-holders.  Before Wolfe’s resignation, various office-holders put out fence-riding statements that tried to sound, well for lack of a better word, leaderly without running the risk of antagonizing potential voters, protestors, and those who thought Wolfe and Loftin were just fine. “This is serious stuff,” the statements generally said, “and I am sure the right things will be done.”   Afterwards the same people who had not publicly come out specifically in favor of Wolfe’s departure courageously said he had done the right thing and they were glad he did.

But there’s another political matter that is hinted at in a part of the scenario that has been overshadowed by the events on the Carnahan Quadrangle.  One of the graduate students who sent a letter “For my dear friends outside of Missouri campus” alluded to it when she wrote, “for many of us, it was clear we were just expected to pay ever-increasing fees (mine are currently about $1000 per semester above and beyond tuition), ½ tuition waivers for some grad students (where prior had been full waivers, which drastically impacts recruiting and retention efforts), an insurance debacle…and ongoing racial discrimination.”

Students are going deeper in debt.  Some graduate students are paying increased fees.  Insurance coverage for them was dropped, then restored when they made enough noise.   And state support for higher education in Missouri is a fraction of what it was a decade ago.  Data compiled earlier this year by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association says funding per full-time student has dropped almost 28 percent in the last five years while college enrollment has increased by twenty percent.

Your reporter was in a meeting yesterday with a former legislator who recalled that when he started in the General Assembly a few decades ago, state funding for higher education paid about half the costs of educating a student. Now, he said, it’s only about ten percent.  There might be more accurate figures but the trend is accurate.

A seminar at Truman State University last March was called “Crisis in Missouri: The decline of state funding for higher education.”   The announcement of the meeting that listed discussion points said, “For decades, public support for higher education in the state of Missouri has declined precipitously.  The impact of this underfunding has been widespread and deeply felt: An increased financial burden on Missouri’s student population; An inability to recruit top teachers and scholars; a deterioration of the quality of education at our state institutions; A weakening of morale for the vast majority of those who work at those institutions; A culture on our campuses of frustration with the present and fear for the future instead of a culture of innovation.”

Fear.  Frustration.  It’s top to bottom in Missouri’s higher education system.  The definitions of those words differ according to position within that system but all strata have them.  Not to give the university administration a pass, but funding issues are a huge issue and at the highest levels are one of the primary ones.  The President of the University of Missouri is seen by many as a manager and a fund-raiser.  The chancellors are the on-campus managers.

But the buck has to stop somewhere.  And ultimately, Wolfe felt the whole package of bucks rose to his level and the best alternative was to leave so that healing could begin on a campus he loved.

But don’t expect the people in Jefferson City to do anything financially that would ease the concerns that dog all of our campuses.  Advocates of smaller government are more concerned with shrinking the state’s capability to pay its bills and obligations than they are in easing financial pressures on higher education and those it serves.   Or other services to the general public.

“You can’t cure a problem by throwing money at it,” some like to say.  That might be true.  But you certainly can’t solve many problems by financially starving them.  In 2013, then-auditor Tom Schweich released a study showing Missouri tax collections are about four-BILLION dollars below the amount allowed by the Hancock Amendment adopted in 1980 as a way to control over-taxation and over-spending.   But the legislature only wants to widen that gap.  So the concerns and frustrations of some of those who called for the departures of Wolfe and Loftin will go unanswered.

WINNERS?

It’s easy to pronounce winners and losers in these situations.  But that’s a mistake because many participants are both. Victory has a cost.  Loss has an opportunity.

Well, Wolfe is gone and so is Loftin.  An African-American temporary president who was the first black graduate of the law school has been installed.  An African-American law professor and associate dean has become an interim vice-chancellor for inclusion, diversity and equality. Curators have promised to restore “a culture of respect,” to hire more minorities, step up recruitment, and offer support to students who feel aggrieved.

Beyond that——-

Three people have been arrested for turning social media into anti-social media by making threats on the internet.  The threats, especially in a time when mass shootings are not so uncommon anymore, honestly frightened some people on the campus.

Someone painted out the word “Black” on the sign in front of the University’s Black Cultural Center; the paint has since been removed.  (Someday, maybe, there will be some discussions about whether cultural centers for various ethnic groups are long-term counter-productive to advancement toward a color-blind multicultural society many of these groups seek.  Someday. Perhaps not this day, though, when emotions that would detract from the kind of discussion that needs to be held are likely to rise.)

The person or persons so consumed by—whatever—that he or she put a piece of human excrement into their hand and drew a swastika on the wall of a co-ed dormitory bathroom and left feces on the floor is still unknown.  The student protests about racism overshadowed concerns by those to whom a swastika has a special significance.

Hate, ignorance, and downright idiocy are inescapable parts of our existence, whether on our campuses or elsewhere in our world.  The events in Columbia have a double edge—protests against wrongs perceived by one segment of society while a hate message that hurts another segment of society stays in the background.

Those of us who were in college in the days when one of the popular songs was “All we are saying is give peace a chance,” a time when demonstrators thought they could help stop wars by putting flowers down the barrels of the guns held by National Guardsmen trying to control demonstrations, still hope for peace and love and harmony.

Each generation has to confront that issue and each generation learns that there are those who think the flower children and their idealistic descendants (and forebears) are fools and troublemakers.  But a generation without ideals offers little to the future.

Comedian Pat Paulsen, whose satiric presidential candidacy in the days of the flower generation, put together a campaign book in 1968.  He wrote, “This book is dedicated to the time when all of us spicks, niggers, white trash, hunkies, wops, kikes, mackerel snappers, micks, gooks, chinks, red necks, beans and hippies get together as Americans.”

Columbia in the past week reminded us we still have a ways to go.

Perhaps this long, long reflection helps answer the questions from friends in Vancouver and in Los Angeles and gives some insight into the coral beneath the surface.

Let me know what you think......