Mizzou protests are a pro-democracy movement (essay)

This past Friday morning on Facebook, an English professor at the University of Missouri and former doctoral student of mine, John Evelev, made what he says will be his last post about the protests against racism at the University of Missouri. Those protests culminated in the resignation of the system president and the Columbia campus chancellor -- and then led to a horrible number of overtly racist counterprotests and threats of violence against black students, faculty members and even ROTC members.

Evelev has written before about the climate of racism that the students detected and that now pervades the campus. In this post, he extrapolates from their concerns and their protests about racism to the very idea of protest itself, to the concept of participation and civic action in a democracy.

What Evelev wrote is so important to the future of democracy and of higher education that everyone needs to take it in. He has given me permission to quote him here: “While most people see this as simply or exclusively a protest against racism, the proper way to see this is as a pro-democracy movement. Universities and public universities in particular used to be democratic spaces, spaces of civic representation in American life. Faced with decreased public funding, they are being run more like businesses with leaders who are unresponsive or downright dismissive of students and faculty. The student protesters, along with the faculty and administrators who worked to remove Tim Wolfe, UM system president, and R. Bowen Loftin, the chancellor of the Columbia campus, were not just fighting racism, but fighting for university leadership that was democratic, responsive to the community, that recognized the university is not just an institution with a really bad profit stream. It is easy enough for the right-wing to dismiss the goals of the students as ‘getting rid of racism,’ but what they really don't want is an American population that actually seeks representation in their institutions, whether education or political. If faculty want shared governance, they are ‘living in an ivory tower.’ We should all want more involvement, more stake-ownership in the important public institutions of our society, not less.”

The students were protesting against racism, a climate of racism, and specific racist acts. They were also protesting against being silenced, being rendered invisible -- which, of course, is one of the most devastating, debilitating and definitional features of racism. The students were also advocating for the ability to have a voice, to make oneself heard. If anyone is silenced in a democracy, we no longer have democracy. That is true particularly of race, especially at this historical moment, as these students have shown us.

It is also true about democracy in general. What I believe John Evelev is saying here is that, in their protest, these students represent the highest aspirations of all education, higher education and public education. Indeed, they represent, as he so beautifully states it, the aspirations of a public in democracy itself.

We have seen so many attempts to suppress democracy and participation in public life -- from voting rights being curtailed to Supreme Court rulings making corporations into “people,” thus allowing businesses and the vastly wealthy to have inordinate power in shaping democracy. President Jimmy Carter has said we are no longer a democracy but an oligarchy, and many social scientists have said that, by definition, he is correct. Is this the society we want?

We cannot, as a nation, allow this to happen. We must reverse this terrible tendency. And the university is the place where this re-energizing of an idea of a “public” must begin. The university is where young people who are minors learn to become full active adults. If universities were only about vocational training, learning how to participate in a democracy would be a secondary factor. And for the vast numbers of full adults returning for skills redevelopment, this certainly may be true.

But we in America have opted to make higher education the place where we send those who are just reaching their majority: these are our children, our nation's future. And we hope that, when they graduate, they will not only know more about a subject, field, discipline and vocation. We also hope and believe that they will be ready to be fully responsible adults, productive members of a society.

In a democracy, that means participation. That means standing up for one's beliefs -- in a way that is civil, responsible, meaningful and true. That means learning to think clearly and articulate one's ideas. It means being able to write eloquently and express one's opinions persuasively. It means knowing not just a subject matter but why that subject matters in the world.

And sometimes it means protests -- especially when an open car, in which the president of your university rides, drives into a stadium in an official capacity and moves forward into a group of protesters, possibly even, according to one accusation, clipping one. Throughout this, the president sits in the car silently. These are his students, at his university. And they are black students. In Missouri, a state already riven by the racial incidents in Ferguson.

There is a lot of talk about whether or not the president should have resigned. It is his prerogative to resign. No one forced that decision. I don't know enough to comment.

What I do know for sure, about any university president, is that he or she must set the moral compass of the institution. Silence, in the car and in the aftermath, is not setting an example, is not modeling public discourse, is not addressing a problem. In view of that, it is not a surprise that Wolfe resigned. Not because of protesters, but because their protest threw into such vivid light what he himself had not addressed for over a month of a silence.

He isn't just anyone. He is the president, the leader. His actions and his words represent the university. He embodies, in actual and symbolic power, what higher education and democracy are for.

Was he afraid to speak? We don't know.

In some ways, the resignation is as baffling as the silence leading up to it. Open, public, intelligent discourse -- from the beginning and with wise and attentive and concerned leadership of the president -- might have been far better for everyone. Now two senior leaders will be replaced with two other senior leaders. What does that solve? Replacing one president with another does not change the conditions of the university. Replacing one administrator with another does not redress the problem of racism.

Leadership change changes leadership. Period. Open, strategic, participatory democratic attention is required to identify, address and solve a systemic problem. Change will only happen if whoever comes into the positions is committed to a better way. Such commitment is hardly a foregone conclusion.

That leads to a larger issue, one that Evelev is pointing to because it is a condition of higher education throughout the United States now. University presidents everywhere are under tremendous pressures these days, especially at public universities, to speak certain kinds of carefully guarded and protective and screened truths or be faced with trustees who want their resignation. More and more presidents are being chosen by such boards, sometimes without real support from the faculty members, students, staff, alumni or other administrators. The case of the University of Iowa is especially pertinent here.

But it is a pattern, an alarming one. President after president is being pressured to respond to politics, not to the mission and the calling of higher education. And I don't mean the small-p politics of student protests but the larger party politics of governors, trustees and funders who have ideological motivations and corporate ones, too.

Higher education must be about the free circulation of ideas, about genuine and responsible expression of ideas, about public discourse at its highest and its most urgent, about debate and dissent conducted in public as well. If there is no room for democratic discourse at a university, then our society is, quite simply, sunk.

Indeed, since John Evelev’s original Facebook posting, the terrible violence in Paris has given new meaning to the call for sane, rational, informed discourse in a democratic society. Innocent people have been murdered. And one reason they have been murdered is because terrorists do not want sane, democratic discourse. They seek to feed blind, uninformed panic. Such panic can lead to retribution not just against the guilty (who deserve it) but also against innocent people who can seem (to outsiders) to share characteristics of ethnicity, race or immigrant status with the perpetrators of violence.

Feeding a cycle of unthinking blame laid against the innocent is exactly what terrorists want. We are hearing far too much of this xenophobia already in the tragic response to a terrible tragedy.

And that brings us back, again, to the issue of racism. Attributing guilt to an entire group is, of course, one attribute of racism.

We have bequeathed to this generation the legacy of a frightening, complex world where the solutions are as difficult to understand as the problems. It will be their job, in the future, to solve these problems. There is no more profound mission of the university than to help prepare them for a future where informed democratic discourse and deep and substantive critical thinking are in constant danger of being drowned out by the forces of ignorance, prejudice and violence. It is a formidable challenge. The least we can do is respect the seriousness of the struggle.

Cathy N. Davidson is a distinguished professor and director of the Futures Initiative at the City University of New York's Graduate Center.

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Police Incident at Brown U Derails Latino Meeting

Brown University officials are investigating and apologizing for an incident that took place early Saturday morning in which one of its police officers restrained and put in handcuffs a student from another college who was attending a meeting of Ivy League Latino student leaders. The university has promised to pay for a new gathering of Latino student leaders since the one that was to have taken place was called off amid considerable anger over what happened to the student (identified in local press reports as being from Dartmouth College). Many at Brown say there was no reason he should have been restrained.

A memo to the campus by Russell C. Carey, executive vice president for planning and policy, said, "I deeply regret that this incident occurred," and that the altercation was "heated and physical."

Christina Paxson, president of Brown, sent an email to the campus promising a full investigation. She also said she would "send a letter of apology tonight to the presidents of the institutions who sent delegates to this weekend’s conference, letting them know I am sorry for the pain their students experienced, and of Brown’s commitment to fund another conference for their delegates."

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Christian For-Profit Adds Benefits for Same-Sex Partners

Grand Canyon University, a Christian for-profit institution, announced Friday that it will extend spousal benefits to same-sex partners of employees. A statement announcing the shift stressed that the university continues to believe "that the Bible is clear about marriage being a sacred union between a man and a woman." But the university said that "in this specific instance, GCU is making a conscious choice to maintain its religious beliefs, while respecting and honoring its neighbors, as well as the system of government and laws that exist today, by extending employee benefits to spouses of lawfully married same-sex couples." The statement stressed that Grand Canyon was making the decision itself, and not being forced to change policies. But the American Civil Liberties Union recently threatened to sue Grand Canyon if it did not treat employees in same-sex marriages the same as employees in opposite-sex marriages.

Two Christian colleges that treat gay married employees the same as straight married employees recently ended their membership in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, amid opposition from many CCCU members to same-sex marriage and a view expressed by some of those members that colleges that recognize same-sex marriages should be excluded from membership. Grand Canyon has no affiliation with the CCCU.

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Rallies at Many Campuses Over Race, Debt

Students on many campuses held rallies Thursday to back black students at the University of Missouri at Columbia and to push for better treatment of minority students at their own institutions. Here are some local press reports about rallies at Guilford College, Loyola University Chicago, and the Universities of Michigan, Washington and Wisconsin at Madison.

Thursday was also the day for the Million Student March, which led to rallies at many campuses to call for free public higher education, the cancellation of current student debt and a $15 minimum wage.

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Mitch Daniels draws praise and criticism for his comments on Yale and U of Missouri

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Mitch Daniels criticizes two universities that have struggled with racial tensions and free speech issues. Some are praising him, but many are angry -- and he'll face a demonstration on campus today.

U of Louisville President Apologizes Again

James Ramsey, president of the University of Louisville, has been much criticized (and through a spokeswoman apologized two weeks ago) for posing with his staff wearing stereotypical Mexican clothing and sombreros for a party last month (right). But on Thursday, in a time of heightened scrutiny of college leaders on inclusiveness, he issued a new, personal apology to students and faculty members. He pledged -- by raising new money, not by reallocating -- to provide more funds for financial aid for Latino students and to recruit more Latino faculty members.

He pledged to use his mistake to change the university to be more committed to diversity. "I deeply regret the Halloween costumes worn by my staff and me. We made a mistake wearing a costume that misrepresents the culture of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans and does not foster the inclusion and diversity efforts that we have worked hard to build over the past 13 years on our campus," he wrote. "I, and I alone, take full responsibility for this incident. I have prayed for God’s forgiveness, and I ask for your forgiveness as well. We now have an opportunity to use this incident to bring about meaningful changes that will strengthen us as a campus."

Clarion Forced to Cancel Play Due to Actors' Race

Clarion University was forced to call off a student production of the play Jesus in India because of the student actors' racial backgrounds, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. Three of the five characters in the play are Indian, but they were to be portrayed in Clarion's production by two white students and a mixed-race student. When Lloyd Suh, the playwright, found out about the casting, he asked the university to assure him that the parts of Indians would be performed only by those of Asian descent. When Clarion said it couldn't make such a commitment, Suh revoked the university's right to perform his work.

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A Mizzou president in the 1930s and '40s may have set the tone for today's crises (essay)

Watch the video of former University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe sitting in the red convertible, stopped by Concerned Student 1950 protesters a month ago in a homecoming parade. Wolfe and his wife appear to deliberately not make eye contact with protesters who were his students, his constituents. The students also say his driver tapped them with the bumper of his car. Wolfe’s bungled definition of “systematic oppression” a week ago finally spoke what his silence had already communicated. He didn’t get it.

Media-created timelines allow us to grasp how several months of problems on the Missouri campus led up to this historic moment of administrative resignations and sparked so many other campus protests. But these timelines could stretch back for years, as the Concerned Students’ invocation of the year 1950 suggests. The students could have dated their struggles back to 1839, the year of the university’s founding (the campus built, as protesting students’ T-shirts put it, on their b[l]acks), or to the 1860s, when Missouri as a state found itself on both sides of the Civil War. Instead, the group chose to honor 1950, the first year African-American students were admitted to Mizzou after a court ruling desegregated the university.

One of them was Gus T. Ridgel, who became the first black student to graduate with a master’s degree, in economics, in 1951. I met Ridgel one night in 2012. He was in his 86th year, and I had the privilege to serve as his driver. I was then an English professor at Mizzou, married to a university administrator. My husband hosted Ridgel’s visit, accompanying him to the football stadium and eventually to the field, where Ridgel would serve as honorary coach. My less glamorous job was to drop them off as close to the stadium as possible.

This may sound easier than it was. An endless series of roadblocks and checkpoints exists near the stadium. I had to persuade officer after officer to allow me beyond the supposed last point possible for cars to travel, explaining to each that the elderly black man in the front seat was a VIP of the university, wanted on the 50-yard line.

Most of these officers were white, and I am white. I was keenly aware how much my race and his age worked in our favor, as I successfully persuaded each man to let me pass and get Ridgel to the stadium. It’s not hard to imagine situations in which we could have been stopped or turned back rather than waved through. I cried as I told my young sons about it later -- the privilege I had of driving this important, brave man, as well as the privilege I enjoyed that allowed me to breeze though security checkpoints.

Ridgel has spoken publicly about how, when he moved to Columbia in 1950, he was denied service at local restaurants and coffee shops, as well as how the university first wanted to charge him double for his room when no one would agree to be his roommate. (The student body president who initially volunteered to do so backed out after fellow students threatened to ruin his father’s business, according to Ridgel.)

Ridgel’s return to Mizzou’s campus in 2012, the night I met him, was not only to serve as honorary coach but also to speak to the dozens of minority graduate students who today hold scholarships awarded in his name, the Gus T. Ridgel Fellowships. Mizzou has succeeded in getting some things right since 1950.

Yet the people whom Ridgel faced down in 1950 are the ones most often memorialized on the Mizzou campus. They include Frederick Middlebush (1890-1971), who enjoyed Mizzou’s longest-running presidency, of nearly 20 years. A prominent campus building is named after him. The university grew eight times its size under his leadership, combined with the good fortune of the GI Bill. Public relations materials claim that Middlebush “wanted to expand the university and create more opportunities for all students.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much digging in Middlebush’s voluminous papers in the university archives to see that that statement is partial at best.

Middlebush was a powerful man not only on Mizzou’s campus but also on the national scene. A member of President Truman’s anti-Soviet-expansion Committee on the Present Danger in the 1950s, Middlebush served alongside Edward R. Murrow, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Arthur Goldberg and Samuel Goldwyn. He flew first-class and was photographed with his arm around fur coat-wearing Hollywood starlets. He died a hero to the university.

He no longer deserves to be seen solely in those terms. Middlebush played a key role in continuing segregation on the University of Missouri campus prior to 1950. It has long been known that he was instrumental in working to try to deny African-American applicant Lloyd Gaines admission to Mizzou’s law school in the mid-1930s. There are documents showing that Middlebush and administrator Thomas Brady even worked to prevent black students from other schools from coming to Mizzou to participate in a United Nations conference held on the campus in 1947.

Let me repeat that: black students from other campuses were denied admission to a United Nations conference at Mizzou. Brady apparently believed that in doing so he and Middlebush were upholding state law. Then there is a “confidential” letter from Brady to Middlebush, listing the names, hometowns and majors of those who encouraged students or “pressed the issue of negro participation” in the UN conference. The handwritten memo lists four students, three faculty members and two ministers. It’s hard to imagine that Brady and Middlebush drew up this confidential list of people who “pressed” the issue in order to write them thank-you notes.

Once Ridgel and other black students matriculated to Mizzou, Middlebush, to his credit, made changes, at least nominally. Brady wrote to Middlebush that he expected they’d treat “negro students” in all respects as they did other students. Mizzou, like many college campuses and our nation as a whole, is still working to transform such tepid statements from 1950 into unflinching pledges in 2015.

Frederick Middlebush certainly spent time with African-Americans in Columbia, Mo. He must have spent a significant amount in the company of at least one black man: his driver. Columbia’s African-American community has recognized as one of its elders and heroes the late Anderson Logan (1911-2008). One of the many university and community contributions on Logan’s résumé is having served as Middlebush’s driver during the years his boss was working to prevent Gaines’s admission to Mizzou Law.

Learning this makes me feel honored to have once been able to serve as Ridgel’s driver. There is much to be undone, as well as to be done, at our nation’s universities where race relations are concerned. The symbolic issues go far beyond Confederate flags. The names of men like Middlebush remain on many of our campus buildings, although Mizzou’s are by no means all named after white male university administrators who now seem on the wrong side of history. (One building, Arvarh E. Strickland Hall, is named after its first black faculty member.)

It’s true that few people are aware of Middlebush’s antiblack activities -- or have seen fit to investigate and publicize such things. It’s questionable how much of this history former president Wolfe knew, for instance. But the newly named interim president, Michael Middleton, certainly knows it well. He was a campus activist at Mizzou during his student years in the 1960s, having founded the university’s Legion of Black Collegians. He went on to have a distinguished career in law and an enormous impact at Mizzou thereafter. His lists of firsts and organizations founded will no doubt be widely reported in the news media in the coming days and deserve to be.

The resignation of Tim Wolfe this week, and the naming of Middleton as his interim successor, may not bring change as soon as many would like. But it at least seems to close off the likelihood of a future filled with more Middlebush Halls and Wolfe Halls and to open up the possibility for a greater number of Strickland Halls and, one could hope, Ridgel and Middleton Halls. We rightly ought to reserve such honors for those we can embrace wholeheartedly as honorable.

Devoney Looser is a professor of English at Arizona State University.

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SUNY white- and black-only signs may lead to new public art guidelines

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Fallout from a racially charged art project at SUNY Buffalo could lead to guidelines some say will impede free student expression.

Campus conflicts reflect two different views of student-administrator relations (essay)

Last week, students and administrators at Yale University fought over a series of racial incidents. A fraternity at the university was accused of excluding nonwhite women from a party. Students and administrators also argued over whether it was appropriate to curtail potentially offensive Halloween costumes. That conflict escalated when students confronted a residential administrator and accused him of not being sufficiently interested in creating a safe environment for students.

Events at the University of Missouri reflect similar tensions -- there were multiple allegations that the system president and campus chancellor did not properly respond to bigoted incidents, which led to protest and the two men's resignations.

Observers and critics have been quick to label these incidents as more tales of overly sensitive students rubbing up against the demands of free speech. But that analysis misses the larger issue: colleges have two very different standards for student-administrator relations that are often in conflict.

The first standard might be called the procedural protection model. Emerging from the late 1960s, the idea is that students are responsible for their own actions and deserve due process in cases of misbehavior. This approach to students replaced an earlier legal doctrine called in loco parentis, whereby colleges and universities treated students as children. Professors and deans could punish students in nearly any fashion. Institutions could expel students at will. That system is now seen as harsh, but it was defended by many people at the time as an appropriate tool for quickly responding to complaints about student disruption and violence.

In loco parentis was overturned after federal courts argued that college attendance was more akin to membership in a union or other organization that had procedural protections. No longer could students be expelled on a whim. Since then, we’ve seen colleges and universities develop handbooks, speech codes and internal judicial processes for judging misconduct.

At the same time, colleges created an entirely different model for student-administrator relations that might be called the “cultivated community.” In this model, students expect a college to go beyond its basic mission of providing advanced instruction in various academic disciplines. Administrators should provide comfort and security for students. We can see this in the wide range of services that colleges provide, including health care, counseling and entertainment.

Furthermore, many colleges promote the idea that the campus is a place for collaborative learning -- that even though we may have heated debates, those disagreements serve to make students part of a larger intellectual community, not exclude them. Thus, the administrator interacts with students via his or her role as the manager of a community designed to improve student satisfaction and well-being.

Colleges reinforce this view when they recruit students. Brochures depict students happily talking with professors or smiling in a laboratory. They often show students in a well-furnished dormitory or relaxing on a lawn with friends. Rarely do they show students in anger with a professor or administrator who states a political view they disagree with. Nor do they show students learning the difficult lesson that freedom of speech protects virtuous speech and vitriolic speech.

Often, these two approaches to student life peacefully coexist. But at other times, they come into direct conflict, especially when the demands for procedural protection make it hard for a college to maintain the support that students expect as a normal part of their college education.

For example, the regime of procedural protection suggests that administrators should be wary of regulating student Halloween costumes. It is not the job of administrators to legislate dress. If it were, deans would need to develop a costume code and judge violations of that code. Not surprisingly, few, if any colleges, have such a code.

Yet what may seem intuitive from a procedural standpoint can seem inhumane from the perspective of the cultivated community. The lack of a widely accepted rule about offensive costume means that there is a real possibility that every Halloween a boorish student will dress as a Klansman, a Nazi or some other horrific figure. It is not hard to see how many students would not feel properly supported if they routinely see Klansmen and Nazis on the quad.

At the University of Missouri, someone painted a swastika -- apparently with feces -- in a restroom. Understandably, students would want swift action from the highest level of the administration stating that this was not tolerated. Rules designed to protect procedural rights could lead to a delay in the investigation and response, suggesting that administrators did not prioritize an atmosphere of safety.

It might be tempting to dismiss these concerns as matters of free speech. This misses the basic point, however, that colleges, like businesses or churches, are allowed to ask their members to adhere to certain codes. Given that is the case, colleges have to recognize that they have standards for student-administrator relations that are occasionally in conflict. The administrator who tolerates a wide range of behavior and investigates violations with all due process is not the administrator who can promise that students will always feel comfortable on the campus.

Until we in higher education acknowledge that basic truth, we will continue to have disputes between administrators who want to let students say what they please and students who demand that college provide a wholly supportive and nurturing experience.

Fabio Rojas is associate professor of sociology at Indiana University at Bloomington.

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