Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Academics, Football, and Activism: A Resignation at the University of Missouri

Missouri’s president recently resigned amid protests about how his institution responded to racist and other deplorable acts on his campus.  A graduate student staged a hunger strike, and players from the Missouri football team threatened to sit out their next game if the president did not resign. 

Some have worried that the threat sets bad precedent, in that they think now a president can be forced to resign based on the racist acts of someone beyond his or her control. I don’t buy that, but more on that later.  Others are upset that it took the football team to make the protests have legs.  I don’t buy this one, either, though I give this one more credence. 

As someone working in an academic environment, I will say that I would be sympathetic if the resignation really happened because of things that were out of the control of the university president. That is, if he were really being held accountable for what was said by an idiot racist student, I'd be supportive of him and think it was wrong he was being forced out. Based on what I have seen, though, the criticisms were valid about the institution's response to the racists acts, and specifically the president’s response, to issues of racism on campus.

I have seen administrations respond well and respond poorly to such events, and how they respond does a lot for how people feel about their institution. My read on this is that this president did not seem to care about an institutional response, when he did respond it was dismissive, and when he came under fire, he lashed back.

One of this things that struck me was that the football coach publicly supported his players. To me, it seems that when high-level folks step out front like that, it's likely the problems were recognized deeply and across boundaries.

Beyond that, personally, I had little patience with the president, based on reports of his responses.  The one that sealed the deal for me was his description of “systematic oppression,” which goes as follows:  "Systematic oppression is because you don’t believe that you have the equal opportunity for success.” Um, no, that's exactly wrong. 

As such, I don’t think this was an issue where the president of a university was being held accountable for the racist behavior of some students.  Unfortunately, that kind of behavior unavoidable, but worth trying to avoid.  How we respond the racist behavior of others, though, is within our control, and we’re accountable for how we respond. 

Furthermore, I don’t think it was just the potential $1 million loss a forfeit of a football game was the sole reason this resignation happened.  I do think it accelerated the process, but I also get the sense this was a problem across the campus.  I think the football players astutely noted that the time was right to join the movement, and knew they had support.  Notoriously conservative football coaches (and I don’t mean politically) don’t jump out in front of things like this very often, at least not if they have a question about which way the wind is blowing.  This seems more to me like a case where the lack of an adequate response -- meaning mostly that the administration was not showing they cared or noticed the problems -- was recognized by a critical mass as problematic.  And things moved forward quickly. 

I am responding only to my perception of reports, and maybe I am getting this wrong, but I get the sense the outcome here was right.  And I think it is more complex than the fact that the football players complained, so change happened. That undercuts the work of the initial protestor, who did motivate change, and it underestimates how deep the lack of support for the administration seemed to go. And, sorry, it was more than financial, even if that was part of the story

Frankly, I worry more about the gendered aspect of this, as colleges and universities are notoriously bad in how they handle Title IX violations, and I don’t know of many (read: any) protests like this leading to successful change on that front.  But maybe, just maybe, we’re on the cusp of something like that.  In a proper case, I sure wouldn’t mind if a football team took the lead on that, too. 


Current Affairs, Joshua P. Fershee, Sports | Permalink


Sitting on the outside, relying on media reports and having no intimate knowledge of the facts regarding the University of Missouri (nor those occurring at Yale), my “kneejerk” is that we have “basted” this generation in an “embryonic stew” engendering a perceived entitlement that they “not be offended” and society (or university) should shelter them from the immutable harshness of human nature. This is NO defense of bigots, haters and bullies. However, much can be said about character development in coping and overcoming impediments.

Some academics have commented on this hyper-sensitivity and entitlement and the impact on the college classroom. See, for example,

As for the football team, I find no surprise in their cohesiveness or their influence. As Michael Sam is quoted as saying, “It always starts with sports. Not just the football team, but sports in general. Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe. Nothing came to be without the football team’s help. Black or white, gay or straight, we are a family. And family sticks together.” This was just as true thirty years ago during my college experience.

That said, I watch believing these seeds of entitlement that have been planted in this generation are blooming forth and eating those who have cultivated it.

Posted by: Tom N. | Nov 11, 2015 9:16:32 AM

Follow up article: College is Not for Coddling - https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/college-is-not-for-coddling/2015/11/10/6def5706-87db-11e5-be39-0034bb576eee_story.html

Posted by: Tom N | Nov 11, 2015 9:37:40 AM

Cross pollinating Law Professor Blogs, but a disturbing piece on the Tax Prof Blog relating in similar terms to students. I don't know which Blog should concentrate on this problem of "I'm offended, so you should be fired," but there seems to be a great deal of it going around. See: http://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2015/11/protesters-demand-firing-of-tenured-vanderbilt-law-professor-over-publication-of-op-ed.html

Posted by: Tom N | Nov 12, 2015 12:36:12 PM

Maybe I'm just hopelessly cynical, but I suspect that Coach Gary Pinkel's support for the striking players is as much a concern about wins and losses as it is an interest in social justice. Remaining silent on the issue would make future recruiting of African American players incredibly difficult, if not impossible. Going so far as speaking out against the players or suspending them for missing practices or games would ensure that he would never win another game as Mizzou's coach.

Posted by: slobodan | Nov 12, 2015 5:11:23 PM

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