University of Missouri protests and their effect on education across the nation

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In the past month, dozens of colleges across the country have protested racial discrimination on campuses in a movement that is forcing higher education administrators to take another look at racial misunderstandings and reevaluate administrative diversity.

Protests were ignited across the country after recent events at the University of Missouri. Students put pressure on Tim Wolfe, then-president of the University of Missouri system, and R. Bowen Loftin, the outgoing chancellor of the Columbia, Missouri, campus, where the bulk of the protests took place. Students demanded that Wolfe and Loftin address complaints of racial insensitivity on campus.

Since the events at Mizzou, demonstrations at Yale University, Ithaca College and Claremont McKenna College, inspired by the original protests, have garnered widespread attention on social media and in national news. Through student activism aided by hashtags and viral videos, these protests have put a spotlight on issues of diversity and have made the movement part of a national discussion about race in education and racial identity.

What happened at the University of Missouri?

The protests at the University of Missouri are not a response to a specific event but are rather a reaction to a string of racial incidents that have occurred on campus to date.

In the past five years, cotton balls have been strewn outside the Black Culture Center on campus, a campus statue was graffitied with racial slurs, and in September, the student body president, who is black, said he was targeted with a racial slur by a group of people in a pickup truck near campus. These events have contributed to a campus climate that protesters have described as unwelcoming to and unsafe for black students.

In October, students staged a protest at the University of Missouri’s homecoming parade, blocking Wolfe’s vehicle, but Wolfe did not engage with the protesters. Ten days later, a group of students, who called themselves Concerned Student 1950 after the year the University of Missouri accepted its first black student, issued a list of demands, which included an apology from Wolfe, a plan to increase the number of black faculty members and Wolfe’s resignation or removal from his position as president of the University of Missouri system.

Tensions increased in late October, when a swastika drawn with human feces was discovered in a residence hall bathroom. On Nov. 2, Mizzou graduate student Jonathan Butler announced he would go on a hunger strike until Wolfe was fired or resigned. Wolfe issued an apology four days later, but students continued to demand his resignation.

In support of the cause, members of Mizzou’s football team announced they would go on strike and not play or practice until Wolfe was out of office. The next day, Wolfe announced his immediate resignation, and Loftin said he would vacate his position by the next academic year.

How has the movement spread?

After the national attention received by the University of Missouri protests and Wolfe’s resignation, students at colleges across the country have increased pressure on campus leaders to address recurring acts of racism and issues of underrepresentation and diversity.

Concurrent protests at Yale University over alleged racial insensitivity on campus around Halloween were the next to go viral. At Ithaca College in Upstate New York, students citing the Mizzou protests called for the resignation of their college president, criticizing his lackluster response to racial incidents on campus. On the Claremont McKenna College campus, the dean of students and junior class president both resigned after a series of protests.

In the past week, students at hundreds of colleges nationwide, including UC Berkeley, have taken to social media to express solidarity with University of Missouri students, Concerned Student 1950 and their experiences with racial identity on campus. Hashtags such as #InSolidarityWithMizzou, #InSolidarityWithYale, #ConcernedStudent1950 and #BlackOnCampus now have thousands of results on Facebook and Twitter.

Biatris Bruins, a UC Berkeley freshman and member of the campus’s Mixed Student Union, wrote a post on Facebook affirming her solidarity with the movement because she said her “heart broke” when she heard about the racism occurring at the University of Missouri.

“Through my post, I wanted to show (University of Missouri students) the love that God shows me and let them know that they are not alone in this, and students at Berkeley hear their cry,” Bruins said.

Students at UCLA, Stanford University and Boston University, among dozens of other schools, have also held events in support of black students at the University of Missouri. UC Berkeley students plan to hold a similar march Wednesday.

How have UC Berkeley students and faculty responded?

Campus protesters demonstrated their solidarity with students at the University of Missouri on Thursday as part of the Million Student March on Sproul Plaza. The march was held on campuses across the country to advocate an end to student debt and also featured speeches from members of campus-affiliated organizations, such as the Black Student Union and the Afrikan Black Coalition.

Among those who gathered to support Mizzou was graduate student Stephanie Bahr, whose parents both went to the University of Missouri in the 1960s.

Bahr said she thought Wolfe’s inaction during the protests led to his resignation.

“He failed to do anything, and that itself is an act of racism,” she said.  

Bahr said she is not aware of any racial incidents on campus that would warrant similar protests, but if there were, she said, she thinks there would be a “comparable movement” at UC Berkeley.

Carol Christ, the director of the Center for Studies in Higher Education on campus, said she was particularly interested in the football players’ strike because it demonstrated the positive effect that sports teams can have on student movements.

Jane Mauldon, a campus associate professor of public policy, disagreed, saying in an email that she thought news of the role that the financial impact of the Mizzou football players had in garnering the administration’s response was “not good.”

“It illustrates the disproportionate power of football finances and fundraising,” she said.

According to a New York Times piece regarding the role of sports finances in the Mizzou protest, if Wolfe had waited to resign and the football team had forfeited an upcoming game against Brigham Young University, the University of Missouri would have lost $1 million.

How is UC Berkeley addressing these concerns?

UC Berkeley has had a strategic plan in place since 2009 for equity, inclusion and diversity, known as Pathway to Excellence — although students and faculty have expressed their opinion online and through protests that the campus has room to improve.

UC Berkeley strives to achieve greater representation through various diversity programs and the recent African American Initiative, but students such as Bruins and Bahr believe the campus can do more to ensure that the administration reflects the diversity of the student body.

In a statement given before the launch of the African American Initiative in September, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks said the initiative will be a “comprehensive effort to address the underrepresentation of African American students, faculty, and staff … and improve the climate for those who are here now and all who will join our community in the future.”

Bruins said she thinks that UC Berkeley has better administrative diversity than most schools but that “we definitely still have really big steps to take.”

Janelle Scott, a UC Berkeley associate professor in the Graduate School of Education and the African American studies department, suggested the campus redouble its efforts to ensure that graduate programs are diverse and that underrepresented-minority students are succeeding in those graduate programs so that they can become the “faculty of tomorrow.”

“This is an opportunity to be introspective on our own campus and think about where we’re falling short as a campus in terms of broader representation not only of race, gender, ethnicity, language and other issues, but also the extent to which we include broader, deeper questions around these experiences in our curriculum,” Scott said.

Contact Maya Eliahou at [email protected].