Unless you live under a rock, you know that the president and chancellor of the University of Missouri, where I teach law, have resigned in response to protests over their failure to respond to several (three identified) racist incidents on campus. A group called Concerned Student 1950 staged a series of protests and demanded, among other things, that our president resign, that he publicly denounce his white privilege, that the university mandate a “comprehensive racial awareness and inclusion curriculum,” and that the percentage of black faculty and staff be increased to 10% by the 2017-18 school year. Last week, a student embarked on a hunger strike until Concerned Student 1950’s demands were met, and students in solidarity moved into a tent village on one of our quads. Over the weekend, the black members of our football team threatened to boycott play until the president resigned, and our coach, facing four straight losses and little prospect of another victory this season, agreed to support and publicize the boycott. Yesterday morning, Mizzou faculty supporting the Concerned Student group walked out of their classes and headed to the quad, where faculty and administrators joined protesting students in blocking media access to the tent village in the middle of our public quad. Around 10:00 AM, the president resigned, and protesting students danced on the quad. Toward the end of the day, the chancellor announced that he will move from his position at the end of the year.
The Mizzou Faculty Council and the administration of the law school have expressed to Mizzou students that the faculty fully supports them. We faculty members have been encouraged to express that support ourselves. I want to do that now.
I want to express my support for the students for a couple of reasons. First, I really love Mizzou. It’s a special place full of wonderful students. I visited at the University of Minnesota a few years back, and I couldn’t wait to get back to Mizzou. Our students reflect the amazing diversity of our state: inner city kids from St. Louis and Kansas City, kids from the suburbs, kids with southern accents from the bootheel, kids with near-Minnesota accents from the northern part of the state, rich kids from fancy prep schools, poor kids who went to public school in the inner city or farm towns. Unlike so many public law schools, Mizzou has kept its operating costs and its tuition at reasonable levels, so an education here is really open to just about all qualified students from the state. (Minnesota’s in-state law school tuition is $41,222; Missouri’s is $19,545.) We mix everyone together and end up with a wonderful student body. I simply adore my students.
Second, I want to support students who have been the subject of racist remarks because I, too, have experienced the pain of being mocked, criticized, ridiculed, etc. for who I am. I was a not-very-athletic gay kid who attended the very traditional and somewhat jockish Fairview Christian Academy. I followed that up with Wheaton College, Billy Graham’s alma mater. For most of my formative years, I was continually reminded that I was deficient, flawed, damned. Express slurs were few and far between (though they occurred), but I was not accepted for who I am. I know the pain of exclusion, and I want both to provide an empathetic ear to my students who feel excluded and to sound a prophetic voice against those who discriminate.
But I could not really support my Mizzou students in this difficult time if I did not point out a few things.
First–The top administrators of a school of 35,000 people cannot prevent all instances of racism. Ignorant, mean people are sometimes going to yell slurs from their pick-up trucks when they drive through campus. Drunken frat boys are occasionally going to say ugly things. When you ambush the homecoming parade, to which parents have brought their small children for a rah-rah college experience, some people are not going to be nice to you. Those ambushed may be taken aback and may not say all the right things. People who draw things with poop are especially hard to control. Be prepared: The people who replace the deposed president and chancellor at Mizzou are unlikely to prevent every racist incident on our campus.
Second–The U.S. Constitution forbids state institutions from employing racial quotas. Having been involved in hiring at Mizzou for a number of years, I can assure that we bend over backward to fill open positions with qualified minority applicants. It is highly unlikely that Concerned Student 1950’s demand that the percentage of black faculty and staff at Mizzou be raised to 10% by 2017-18 can be implemented in a manner consistent with constitutional obligations. You should know that.
Third–Free speech means more than the freedom to express views with which you agree. I honestly think most Mizzou students understand this point, but I’m afraid that the administrator and communications professor in this video don’t grasp it. Lest you be misled by their ill-advised bullying, you should know that the First Amendment is for everyone.
Fourth–Unreasonable demands have consequences. We will survive this, but Mizzou has been badly weakened. I can’t imagine that the press accounts from the last week will help with minority student and faculty recruitment next year. That’s a shame, because based on my encounters with a great many minority students and professors at Mizzou over the past twelve years, I believe most have had good experiences. Perhaps they haven’t been honest with me. Or perhaps the situation has changed in the last couple of years. If so, I’m terribly sorry to hear that. But, following the events of the last week, I can’t imagine that next year will be better.
Fifth–Regardless of your take on the events of the last week, I hope you will not let bitterness reign in your hearts. Unlike many of my gay friends from conservative religious backgrounds, I chose years ago not to write off those people who were once unkind to me. I’m glad I made that choice. I hope any Mizzou student who is currently feeling marginalized for any reason will keep calm, carry on, give others the benefit of the doubt, and be open to reconciliation.
So, Mizzou students, I support you. But I will not coddle you. You’re adults and should be treated as such.