The 2015 Campus Crisis

Jul 31, 2017 |  J. Martin Rochester

Font Size  

  

The 2015 Campus Crisis

Jul 31, 2017 | 

J. Martin Rochester

NAS member J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of political science at University of Missouri-St. Louis, has written a case study of the 2015 crisis at the University of Missouri, using it as a window into the declining commitment to diversity, free speech, and academic rigor nationwide.

The Office of Sexuality and Gender Diversity is located on the fourth floor of Lucas Hall. This Office is home to Prizm [the Queer-Straight Student Alliance] and Gender Studies. Adjacent to the Office are two gender inclusive bathrooms. These gender inclusive bathrooms are becoming more common on campus. In some cases, these bathrooms were previously gender specific and we are having a small problem with folks forgetting to lock the doors when they are using the bathrooms. Please remember to lock the door once you enter the bathroom since the gender inclusive bathrooms generally are designed to be used by one person at a time. UMSL is really an inclusive campus and these types of changes are good parts of 21st Century America.

The dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Missouri-St. Louis sent the above email to the faculty on March 23, 2017. In the past, the need for educational institutions to instruct their students in potty habits typically has occurred at the level of nursery schools and kindergarten. It is a sign of the times that this is now occurring in higher education, carried out by no less than a dean of arts and sciences. The dean is a microbiologist, and one might have expected him to be concerned about germs and public health issues. However, the matter in question here was social justice, something that we are now all supposed to be expert in nowadays. It’s a survival skill.  

UM-St. Louis is just one campus in the four-campus University of Missouri system. This same scene could have been played out on any of the UM campuses. As the flagship campus – the one with the Division I football and basketball team – the University of Missouri-Columbia (“Mizzou”) is the source of most of the rules and regulations issued by the system administrators and board of curators. Since the much-publicized racial turmoil at UM-Columbia in the fall of 2015, the regimes governing UM have doubled down in mandating “inclusiveness.” The Mizzou incident sparked similar protests at universities across the country, with similar calls for increased inclusiveness. Bathroom wars and other such conflicts have only escalated since the 2016 presidential election.

Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, spoke for many academics when he warned, in a recent New York Times op-ed, that “not since the era of witch-hunts and ‘red-baiting’ has the American university faced so great a threat from government.”1 What he and his fellow administrators and faculty fail to recognize is that the threat to the university has been building for decades. It comes less from government than from within, less from Donald Trump and the alt-right than from the control-left that rules American campuses.2 In Orwellian fashion, the typical campus trumpets diversity ad nauseam, but lacks its most important form, intellectual diversity; proclaims its commitment to free inquiry and expression but undermines those through a proliferation of speech code restrictions including micro-aggressions, trigger warnings, and safe spaces; and claims its main mission to be the cultivation and dissemination  of knowledge, although many disciplines have drifted away altogether from scholarly rigor and serious curricula.

The 2015 crisis at the University of Missouri-Columbia is a window into how “institutional liberalism” has subverted the modern university throughout America.

                         The 2015 Campus Crisis at Mizzou

According to “Concerned Student 1950,” the group that launched the campus protest in the fall of 2015 at the University of Missouri-Columbia, racial problems had persisted at Mizzou for decades, with relatively little progress made in combating racism. When a “Racism Lives Here” rally was held on September 24, the recent police killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri 120 miles from Columbia, had already charged the campus with racial tension. So too had several anecdotal accounts of local incidents involving bigotry, including a September 12th Facebook posting by the African-American student government president, Payton Head, who reported that unidentified people riding in a pick-up truck off-campus had hurled racial and anti-gay slurs. On October 8,  UM-Columbia Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin announced that all incoming freshmen would receive mandatory online diversity training. Two days later, protestors blocked University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe’s car during a homecoming parade, with Wolfe accused of being unresponsive to student concerns and even “smiling and laughing.”

On October 20, Concerned Student 1950, which had no more than a couple of dozen members, issued a list of demands that included an apology from Wolfe, his resignation, the hiring of more black faculty, and the adoption of a more extensive racial awareness and inclusion curriculum for all staff, faculty and students. On November 2, a graduate student named Jonathan Butler, who claimed Wolfe’s car had hit him during the parade, started a hunger strike. He stated that it would continue until the university president resigned. Despite an apology from Wolfe that acknowledged racism at the university, some 200 students camped out in support of Butler.  The school’s football team also supported Butler and threatened to boycott the rest of the season, which would have cost the university a $1 million fine for forfeiting the upcoming game against Brigham Young University, and millions more if the entire season had been canceled. Under growing pressure from faculty and state legislators concerned about damage to the school’s reputation, President Wolfe announced his resignation on November 9. He was followed hours later by Chancellor Loftin, who likewise had been accused of insensitivity to racial and social justice issues.   

That was not the end of the story. The day after the Mizzou chancellor’s resignation, all students, staff, and faculty received an email from the campus police department “asking individuals who witness incidents of hateful and/or hurtful speech or actions to call the police immediately” and “provide a detailed description of the individual(s) involved.” Such Bias Response Teams were not viewed as constituting “witch-hunts” but as necessary to insuring a “safe” environment. On November 9, student protestors who had gathered in a tent city in the university’s main quadrangle were approached by two student journalists interested in capturing the event on video. An assistant professor of mass communications, Melissa Click, tried to block the journalists from interviewing and filming students, even though the reporters were seeking access to a public space. She was caught on tape yelling at them to “get out” and, after grabbing the camera, calling for “some muscle“ to remove them from the quad. 

Although Click had a courtesy appointment in the School of Journalism, she apparently was unaware of the First Amendment rights of the student journalists. Her understanding of mass media was limited to popular culture: the university website reported that “her research interests center on . . . theories of gender and sexuality and media literacy. Current research projects involve 50 Shades of Grey readers, the impact of social media in fans’ relationships with Lady Gaga, messages about class and food in reality television programming, and messages about work in children’s television programs.” Her research agenda had included not only Lady Gaga but also Martha Stewart, the Twilight vampire series, the Thomas the Tank Engine series, and other such “academic” subjects. Although she claimed to be an expert on “visual literacy,” she did not realize how quickly her scowling image and call for mob rule could go viral nationally.

Click was under review for tenure at the time, and many state lawmakers urged that she be terminated immediately. On February 24, 2016, after release of an earlier video showing her screaming profanities at police during the October homecoming parade, the UM Board of Curators fired her. Over 100 of her colleagues signed a letter defending her in the name of academic freedom and due process, and they were supported by the American Association of University Professors. Click subsequently was hired as a lecturer in communication studies at Gonzaga University, which announced that “Dr. Click was hired through an extensive national search process that revealed her to be the most qualified candidate for the position.”3 

President Wolfe was replaced by Michael Middleton, a Mizzou law professor and deputy chancellor emeritus, who became interim head of the UM system. On the same day that Professor Click was terminated, Middleton, an African-American, received a revised set of demands from Concerned Student 1950 which included compulsory cultural competency training for all staff, faculty and students, overseen by persons of color; an increase in the percentage of black faculty and staff to 10 percent; and other demands aimed at “advancement of Blacks on campus.” The next month, the University of Missouri hired a Chief Diversity Officer with a starting salary of $235,000 and instituted a new three-credit hour “diversity intensive” course required for graduation, focusing on “understanding differing social groups.” It was not clear how any of this would address the fact that Mizzou was ranked in 2016 as “the worst school in the country for ideological diversity.” 4 It was also not clear if the university would learn any lessons from this debacle, as freshman enrollment at Mizzou suffered a 35 percent drop due to negative publicity, while alumni donations, especially to the athletic department, plummeted precipitously, and state officials unimpressed with faculty teaching, research, and oversight ordered substantial budget cuts.5  

NOTES

  1. Leon Botstein, “American Universities Must Take A Stand,” New York Times, February 8, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/08/opinion/american-universities-must-take-a-stand.html
  2. Among the few universities that have spoken out publicly against speech code restrictions and other threats by the authoritarian left to free speech is the University of Chicago. See “University of Chicago Rebels Against Moves to Stifle Speech,” New York Times, August 27, 2016; and Robert Zimmer, “Free Speech Is the Basis of A True Education,” Wall Street Journal, August 26, 2016, written by the president of the University of Chicago. 
  3. “Fired Mizzou Professor Melissa Click Hired at Gonzaga University,” September 4, 2016, http://www.foxnews.com/us/2016/09/04/fired-mizzou-professor-melissa-click-hired. Michael Pearson provides the sequence of events during the crisis in Michael Pearson, “A Timeline of the University of Missouri Protests,” CNN, November 10, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/09/us/missouri-protest-timeline/.
  4. “Mizzou Ranked As Worst School in the Country for Ideological Diversity,” The Daily Caller, October 27, 2016, http://dailycaller.com/2016/10/27/mizzou-ranked-as-worst-school. According to Heterodox Academy, a group of academics seeking to increase respect for diverse viewpoints in  our universities, the University of Missouri-Columbia was tied with the University of Oregon for the most ideological homogeneity among American universities.
  1. UM-Columbia expected an overall drop in enrollment of 7.4 percent in Fall 2017, including the smallest freshman class in two decades, as well as the loss of $14.7 million in state funds, which would require the university to trim 400 positions. “Mizzou Likely to Cut Hundreds of Positions Amid Expected 7 Percent Enrollment Dip,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 16, 2017. See also  Anemona Hartecollis, “Long After Protests, Students Shun the University of Missouri,”  New York Times, July 9, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/09/us/university-of-missouri-enrollment-protests-fallout.html.

Image: Melissa Click pointing (cropped).jpg by Mark Schierbecker // CC BY-SA 4.0

There are no comments for this article yet.