A Historic Student Revolution At The University of Missouri
While political commentators were busy reigniting their yearly “Attack on Christian Christmas” media machine by arguing over the religious implications of Starbucks cups, real issues were playing out deep in the heart of Missouri. The University of Missouri campus has been rocked by months of protests by student groups and faculty that escalated and exploded after a number of racist incidents over the last month were mishandled by the administration. After hunger strikes, football boycotts, and racial epitaphs brought the campus to a standstill, justice seems to have finally won out.
Student activists who have been fighting an exhausting battle all semester against the administration cheered and celebrated Monday after news broke that the president, Timothy M. Wolfe, and the chancellor, R. Bowen Loftin, are stepping down from their positions. As the good news spreads, we look back on the incidents at the University of Missouri—and the excellent coverage by MU’s student newspaper The Maneater—to figure out what went down, and why this victory is so significant for student activism.
Making a Movement
Long before the campus-wide protests began, a smaller battle erupted on August 14th between the graduate students on campus and administration. MU announced it was cutting graduate student health care—thirteen hours before domestic students’ health care was set to expire, and thirteen days after health care began for international graduate students. This epic dick move prompted the students to form a Forum on Graduate Rights, which then issued seven demands—covering graduate student pay, health care, housing, childcare facilities, and more—to administrators. They gave them six days to put forth a plan addressing their demands and, after that timeline passed, organized a nearly 1000-student walkout and rally that took place on August 26th under the amazing title ‘Breaking Grad.’
Adding salt to the gaping wound MU created was the news that administrators hadn’t looked at or analyzed end-of-the-year graduate student surveys for 12 years. Grad students were rightfully pissed, and the incident exposed how little fucks the higher ups seemed to give about their concerns. I mean, the Associate Vice Chancellor for Graduate Studies, Leona Rubin, literally just said “I don’t know” when asked why nobody had read the surveys for 12 years, and Chancellor Loftin only found out about the healthcare cuts through social media. It would be a laughable situation fit for an article on The Onion, if it wasn’t affecting the students’ entire lives and quality of education.
Escalating Racial Tensions
Two weeks after the graduate student drama began to cool down, an entirely new controversy erupted, leading to the major protests this week. The president of the Missouri Students Association, Payton Head, wrote a now-viral Facebook post on September 12 detailing an incident the night before, where a group of men in the back of a pickup truck yelled racial slurs at him.
“I really just want to know why my simple existence is such a threat to society,” he wrote. “If your simple existence is not a political statement I’m really going to need for you to check your privilege.”
It wasn’t the first time Head had been the target of racially motivated aggressions despite his prominence on the university’s campus. He was elected president with the biggest voter at MU ever, and made history alongside MSA Vice President Brenda Smith-Lezama as the first slate with two Black students to win an election. At a university where only 8% of the undergraduate body is black and only 3 percent of tenured or tenure-track professors are black, that’s a big fucking deal. This verbal assault on Head joined the nine reported hate crimes that spanned from 2012 to 2015, according to the MU Police Department. It should be noted here that despite this number seeming low, statistics on hate crimes, sexual assault, and other instances of violence tend to be underreported because of fear of retaliation against the victim.
The spark lit with Head’s Facebook post soon fused with the damning results of the Association of American Universities’ study on sexual assault and sexual misconduct, which found that of the 78.8 percent of female victims who were penetrated by force, 61 percent did not believe the incident was serious enough to report. Soon a campus-wide rally was organized for September 24 under the name “Racism Lives Here,” because of intense criticism levied at Chancellor Loftin for taking six days to respond to Head’s FB post. As protests continued, the powder keg of racial tensions seemed fit to explode at any moment. On October 5, that moment happened, and it led to one of the most inspiring months of student activism in years.
Student Activists Fight Back
While rehearsing for the Legion of Black Collegians (LBC) 2015 Homecoming Royalty Court, a group of black students were interrupted by a drunken student who hurled racial slurs and hurtful language at them. Adding to the already egregious nature of the verbal attack was the context: LBC has hosted their own separate homecoming celebration since 1988 after the theme for that year was “Show Me Ol’ Mizzou,” which brought vibes of MU’s racist history. Unlike the previous incident with Head, Chancellor Loftin released a tweet the next day condemning the incident and calling for a more open and accepting campus climate. The day after the incident also marked an impromptu sit-in at Jesse Hall by professors and students to protest racism and the lack of direct action by administrators.
While speaking at the event, Head stated: “Administrators need to not only listen, but also take action. Listening is one thing, but students have been talking for so long. We’re finished talking.”
The protests gained strength as the days passed, and on October 8th, the MU administration announced mandatory campus-wide diversity and inclusion training to help foster a safer campus. Despite this step in the right direction, student protests continued, including another “Racism Lives Here” rally, an ISIS flag-burning rally against US foreign policy by the MU Coalition for those Killed by ISIS (MUCK ISIS), and a Homecoming demonstration attempting to capture the attention of UM System President Tim Wolfe.
Demands and Victory
Amidst the overwhelming show of activism on a number of issues, one group stepped up and sets in motion the final push that led to yesterday’s announcement that President Wolfe and Chancellor Loftin will step down from their positions. The group, called Concern Student 1950 after the year black students were admitted to the university, presented a list of demands on October 20th that include a call for Wolfe’s removal, an increase in hiring for professors of color, and diversity training. They gave MU eight days to respond.
As students waited anxiously for a response, someone drew a swastika using feces on the wall of a bathroom, which is both revolting and the second anti-Semitic incident in the past year. A mere two days after this incident, members of Concerned Student 1950 meet with Wolfe to attempt to work out an agreement. They left disappointed and angry because, according to their statement, Wolfe “did not mention any plan of action to address the demands or help us work together to create a more safe and inclusive campus.”
At this point, student protests and dissatisfaction with administration had reached a level of volatility. It only escalated with the announcement by graduate student Jonathan Butler on November 2 that he would begin a hunger strike until Wolfe is removed from office. This move prompted statements—but not action—on the part of both Loftin and Wolfe. Students in support of Butler boycott the Student Center and lead a walkout three days after the hunger strike began, and faculty issued statements of concern about the “lack of communication and the growing uncertainty” about university and UM System leadership. By Sunday, the entire football team announced a boycott and walkout from any practice until Wolfe resigned.
On Monday, justice won out, and University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe announced he is stepping down from his duties effective immediately. A few hours after that, Chancellor Loftin announced he would step down at the end of the year. As the world begins to take note of the unprecedented unity of student activists on the MU campus, we are reminded of the power of protest. The people united will never be defeated.
Images via the Associated Press.
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