Students at the University of Missouri are confused and upset about pending changes to top staff positions at campus centers focused on supporting underrepresented groups on campus, including LGBTQ and Black students and survivors of sexual assault.
The university plans to eliminate coordinator positions at five social justice-focused centers that are part of the Division for Inclusion, Diversity and Equity, including the LGBTQ Resource Center, Women’s Center, Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center, Multicultural Center and Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center, according to a private message shared with members of the LGBTQ Resource Center. The message, which said the changes are to be implemented by June 30, was shared with Inside Higher Ed by a member of the message group.
Christian Basi, director for media relations for the Columbia campus and the university system, said the university is “elevating the supervision positions” as part of a broader restructuring plan and some coordinator roles will be promoted to assistant directors. When the plan is complete, “the centers will be in a better position to support students, faculty and staff at the university,” Basi said.
He said claims circulating on social media that all staff members at the centers will be let go and that the centers themselves would be eliminated are false. It is “absolutely not true that we’re getting rid of the centers,” and the university is “absolutely committed to the resources these centers provide,” Basi said. The Columbia Missourian reported that the plan aims to raise the number of full-time staff members in the centers from 10 to 15.
The private message outlining the restructuring plan said the university would move away from “the current holistic identity-based coordinators” to new “task-oriented positions.” The new positions will span multiple centers and include individual staff members in charge of events and programming for the centers, overseeing student staff members, and managing center training programs. The Missourian reported a similar structure.
Those currently serving in coordinator positions must go through a formal application process for the new assistant director roles and a review of their qualifications for the new positions, Basi said. The university does not anticipate widespread firings or layoffs within the centers, he said. The private message from the LGBTQ Resource Center said there will be an open search for the new assistant director positions, and current coordinators are not guaranteed a job. The university has not confirmed this information.
The restructuring could lead to the departure of trusted university staff members who have built relationships with students and who share their identities, several students said on Twitter. After news of the plan circulated on campus over the weekend, students began using the hashtag #Justice4MUSocialJustice to share personal experiences of how staff members of the various centers have supported them, and they coordinated a protest on campus Monday with more than 100 attendees, according to KBIA radio.
Mark Bremer, a first-year graduate student and former vice president of inclusion and brotherhood for the university’s Interfraternity Council, said he worked closely with the LGBTQ Resource Center’s coordinator, Eli Kean, on an initiative to make fraternities and sororities on campus more inclusive and safe for LGBTQ students. Bremer became president of the joint project between the center and the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, called Greek Allies, and said it would not have been possible without Kean and the center’s support providing training, materials and strategy for the group.
Bremer, who is bisexual, said Kean became one of his mentors as he navigated the very heteronormative culture of fraternity life in Missouri. Kean “gave me guidance about my identity and how it fits into the groups I am a part of,” Bremer said.
“We had a pretty great bond,” Bremer said. “I can name countless times where I walked into the coordinator’s office and broke down crying.”
Under the proposed restructuring, “I don't know where the voices of students who are crying out for help are going,” Bremer said.
Maurice Gipson, vice chancellor of inclusion, diversity and equity, said in an email to students Monday that the university "knows how important our social justice centers are to the success and support of our community.
"We are committed to enabling greater student success with improved support from our social justice centers," Gipson wrote. "I will have more details in the coming weeks after I meet with student groups and staff. I want to assure you that our social justice centers remain strong, and we are committed to supporting them."
Several official campus organizations put out statements critical of the restructuring. The Coalition of Graduate Student Workers at the university tweeted that it “unequivocally condemns” the decision to remove lead staff members in the centers and said university administration “deliberately chooses to spit in the eye of students and staff at every turn.” The Mizzou Young Democratic Socialists of America called the move an “injustice.”
“The Social Justice Centers at Mizzou are integral spaces where many marginalized students form community with each other,” a tweet from the group said. “The coordinators and staff of these centers do crucial work in fostering diversity and inclusion on campus. From providing unique programming to providing a space for a myriad number of organizations to host their events.”
The American Federation of Teachers Academics, a nationwide union representing faculty members, student workers and staff members on college campuses tweeted that the student response was “powerful.”
Alana Hayes, a first-year student who works at the Multicultural Center, said she built a close relationship with Velma Buckner, coordinator of the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center, through participation in the Mizzou Black Women’s Initiative, an academic and leadership program. Buckner teaches a required course for the program, and without it, “I don’t know where I would be on this campus,” Hayes said.
Hayes attended the protest Monday and spoke about her experience with the Black Culture Center and Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center, where she sought help after being raped by a classmate. She feels sorry for the coordinators whose jobs are in limbo and is doubtful that the university will fulfill promises to expand the reach of the support centers.
“They’ve given so much of their life and time to this, and this is what they get,” Hayes said. University leaders “don’t care about marginalized students and diversity and inclusion when they’re cutting the people that do that work.”