November 10, 2015; USA Today

The tide of events at the University of Missouri quickly became too much for the university system’s Board of Curators, and the university president Timothy Wolfe. Yesterday morning, Wolfe took responsibility for the racial protests at the university and resigned effective immediately, a sharp contrast to his position from only days earlier where he had rejected calls for his leaving and had promised reforms that would take as long as several months to be realized.

Events that transpired between Sunday evening and Monday morning built to the point where Wolfe and the Curators had to give in, including an announcement from some part of the faculty that they too would join the students in demanding Wolfe’s ouster. Like the coach of the University of Missouri football team who stood by his players, potentially jeopardizing his salary for all the public might have known, the faculty saw their primary allegiance and obligations to the young people whose futures they were entrusted with guiding and cultivating.

Wolfe’s resignation is by no means the end of this situation. Much more is going to have to happen to address the rapid crescendo of events that emerged in Columbia, Missouri over the past couple of weeks. But lessons can be drawn nonetheless:

  1. Multi-racial mobilization: Much of the press coverage focused on black students and black football players, but much more was going on here. People of all races on the Missouri campus felt the impact of the racism that emerged. For the press, for the Curators, and for the unrepentant racists who scrawl racial insults on dorm walls, it does not work to dismiss protests like Missouri’s as simply the actions of a minority of students. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, the impetus against racism has captured and moved people of all races.
  2. Campus grievances: Despite the racial tensions at the heart of the protests, there was more at play. The racism displayed by unidentified cowards shouting the N-word added to grievances that the students at Missouri already had about a number of factors on campus. As a statement that had been released by the Missouri Students Association said, “For our students, the struggles of living on this campus have too often been met by the silent bureaucracy of an inadequate system…The academic careers of our students are suffering. The mental health of our students is under attack. Our students are being ignored.” Other issues on campus provided fertile ground for the racial protests to take root and resonate strongly among a cross-section of students who saw the school’s response to the racial incidents as consistent with its manner of handling other grievances.
  3. It always starts with sports”: That was the statement of Michael Sam, the former Mizzou defensive end who was once the SEC defensive player of the year and was the first openly gay player ever to be selected in the National Football League draft. Sam came to the campus to show his solidarity with the protesters and to speak with Jonathan Butler, the graduate student who was on a hunger strike. In his statement to the press, Sam noted that there had been complaints about conditions and the lack of input of students, but “President Wolfe would just pretty much wave it off—until the football team said something.” Sam wasn’t implying that sports teams are at the heart of all campus social movements, but that much of this nation’s societal progress has been captured and reflected in sports. Sam cited Jackie Robinson and Arthur Ashe as two prototypical examples of athletes whose role in sports had meaning to society. The Missouri football team has in its own way followed those icons along a path of leveraging their sport for social change.
  4. The power of the players: NCAA football is big business. Had this impasse not been resolved and the football team not played its next game against Brigham Young University, Missouri stood to lose more than $1 million in liquidated damages and other costs per its game contract. In this case, like the Northwestern University football team’s organizing for employee status rather than the NCAA-crafted fiction of “student-athlete,” the Missouri football players tossed the “dumb jock” image out the window. As Tim Dahlberg wrote for the Associated Press, the football team’s protest and boycott “highlighted the power of players who toil for little more than an education and some meals while bringing in millions of dollars every week for their university. They stood up for what they thought was right, and they won. They stuck together and forced changes that without them would never have been made. Think about the implications of that, if you will. If players can oust a university president over racial issues, what’s stopping them from getting together to correct other inequities in a college sports system where almost everyone makes money except the players?”
  5. The Ferguson effect, the college student effect: The Columbia campus is not far from Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown, close to the same age as many of the Missouri students, was shot and killed by a white policeman. There had been Ferguson-related organizing on the Missouri campus which Wolfe and the administration should have taken into account with the history of racial incidents at the school—which, by the way, go back some years. But beyond geographic proximity, the Missouri protests should demonstrate that university students are not all hermetically sealed off in libraries cadging for grades and jobs; a in past decades, they are aware of societal inequities—perhaps more acutely aware than their parents, in many cases. College students are often at the vanguard of issues that need to be heard by the rest of society. Some people might not like the style of some of the protests, but universities are—or should be—platforms for raising concerns and, in the case of Missouri, bringing them to the attention of bureaucrats like Wolfe and his peers and compelling action.
  6. Not just one man: In addition to Wolfe, university chancellor R. Bowen Loftin, technically the head of the Columbia campus (Wolfe was president of the entire University of Missouri system), also resigned. Except in rare cases, problems like Missouri’s are not resolved simply by lopping off the top guy and moving on. Wolfe, Loftin, and the Curators all get that. The Board of Curators has announced a series of steps to be taken, including the hiring of a diversity, inclusion, and equity officer; support for students who have received disparate treatment because of their race; the formation of campus-based task forces to develop inclusion and equity strategies; mandatory diversity training for all university faculty and students; and support for hiring a more diverse faculty and staff complement.

Protest is often messy and uncomfortable. For a university president like Wolfe who not only generally brushed off the issues, but at the homecoming event, refused to talk to protesters (and as a result ended up bumping graduate student Jonathan Butler with his car), the lesson should be clear. Listen really hard to what students have to say. They aren’t taking to the streets, boycotting classes, or boycotting football games (and risking their scholarships) for fun. If they’re raising grievances that are not minor or superfluous—and the history of racial incidents at Mizzou certainly wasn’t—the students’ concerns should be respected. But for faculty, students, and administrators, the issues of racism are not simply the overt racists who scrawl things on walls in the dead of night or shout epithets from the anonymous safety of a passing car, but the layers of inequities that constitute the hidden, covert, and institutional racism that pile up and get institutionalized in systems and reflected in the clueless reactions and behavior of university administrators like those at Missouri.—Rick Cohen