Your correspondent has paid a couple of visits to the University of Missouri’s Columbia campus within the last few days. Believe it or not, all of the columns on Francis Quadrangle are still standing. The lighted dome of Jesse Hall still shines brightly against the night sky. White campus has not crumbled. Red campus still stands. Peace Park is still peaceful. The lions at the journalism school arch that are supposed to roar when a virgin walks by remain silent.
One would think otherwise, of course, after reading the seemingly constant flow of headlines emanating from that campus. The inspection trip to Columbia became necessary after a fellow UMC graduate sent a note saying, “This is depressing” after reading Tony Messenger’s recent column in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch headlined “Somebody needs to drive University of Missouri out of ditch. Now.”
Tony, who was a terrific reporter at the state capitol before being demoted to editorial page editor, has recounted the seeming continued deterioration of the university system. We say “system” although most of the collapse is centered in Columbia. And since the university system is so Columbia-centric, the screaming and the shouting (“when in danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.”) seems to mean in the public mind that the whole darned thing is in one mell of a hess, as Grandpa Motes used to say.
Well, it is. It is because the focus is on Columbia but the ripples include the campuses in Rolla, Kansas City, and St. Louis in several ways. Columbia’s the one with the football recruiting class that is 53rd in the nation, with a basketball team at the bottom of the conference that is hoping its self-flagellation over a significant recruiting violation under a different coach and a different athletic director will spare it significant additional flagellation from the NCAA, and with an apparently previously well-accepted communications professor who made an egregious emotional mistake during last fall’s demonstrations becoming the poster-child in a heated disagreement involving academic freedom, constitutional rights, personal responsibility, and competing political agendas. It is a system in which one-third of its governing board has quit for one reason or another (one curator leaving even before the Senate confirmed Governor Nixon’s nomination of her), where a former system president who was praised for his graceful forced exit last year has now attacked the system’s governance and management, where Standard and Poor’s has lowered the institutional bond rating because of financial uncertainty caused by decreased enrollment and political games at the capitol, where interim leaders are struggling for stability while the unenviable task of finding a new president is underway, where—as Tony says—“black students and faculty feel disenfranchised,” and where one of the town’s newspapers recently reported that foreign students—who have been aggressively recruited because their much-higher tuitions provide minor help in offsetting legislative parsimony in financial support for education (at all levels)—don’t know who to go to if they feel harassed or threatened.
And we’re sure we’ve left some things out. Oh, yes—a governor who has convinced the university to freeze tuitions so he can recommend the aforementioned parsimonious legislature give it a sadly-inadequate increase in general funding because the whole goal of government is to convince Missourians they can get more of the services they need and demand if they pay less for them. It’s the same government that seems to think the most important things in higher education today are making sure nobody who even knows where Columbia, Missouri is can perform an abortion there while making sure all students can carry guns.
And the leader of the Senate says the university’s governing board will stay crippled for at least a year—until a new governor takes office because the senate will not confirm any nominees by the sitting governor. That’s real helpful, isn’t it?
So, politically, the University of Missouri has been driven into a ditch. But a lot of hands have been on the wheel. If we listen to the Missouri Department of Transportation, ditches might be the best-maintained part of our road system today. So getting the University out of the ditch will still leave it on the same uncertain road full of political potholes that it’s been on for some time.
But friends, there is hope. And it is not on the road of potholes.
It is in the classrooms. And the view behind the headlines is markedly different.
While all of the people who THINK they are important are playing their games, the serious work of educating another generation is quietly being carried out in thousands of classrooms, laboratories, studios, clinics, and offices on the four campuses by people who ARE important. Walk through the Columbia campus and you’ll be walking with the young people WE were, young people busy being in their teens and early 20s and going about the business of becoming. They’re talking and laughing, not spitting and shouting epithets. They’re thinking and working. Their teachers are shaping, not threatening, them. (Well, except that the threat of a poor grade still hangs over the head of every student.)
In dormitory rooms and apartment rooms, at the Heidelberg or at Shakespeare’s Pizza’s temporary location, or in the part of the Brady Commons that commemorates The Shack, the students are doing what WE did. They’re studying or playing cards or sleeping or—-. Fill in the blank from your own memories. Most of them do not feel harmed by the oh-so-serious power struggles among the people who THINK they’re the important ones, although in various ways they are being harmed because the struggles for political power are limiting their opportunities. The REAL important ones are the ones with backpacks over their shoulders and hope in their eyes as they and their teachers lay the groundwork for lives they hope will be well-lived.
They are the university. Their headlines are in years to come. Walk among them and be hopeful.