National Press Club

University of Missouri president sees 'grim' fall but says progress made after black student protests

June 21, 2016 | By Lawrence Feinberg | lfeinber@gmail.com

University of Missouri President Michael Middleton said the school has made 'significant progress' in addressing issues that caused racial tension last year.

University of Missouri President Michael Middleton said the school has made 'significant progress' in addressing issues that caused racial tension last year.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

University of Missouri President Michael Middleton said the school faces a “grim” situation this fall with declining enrollment and a projected $30 million revenue shortfall in the wake of tumultuous black student protests last year.

At a National Press Club breakfast June 21, Middleton said the perceptions of disorder and disarray causing the decline are inaccurate but he acknowledged that dealing with problems of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” are “major challenges.”

“We have made significant progress,” Middleton declared, “but there is much more work to be done.”

Middleton, a law professor and retired deputy chancellor at the university, was named interim president in November following the resignations of Timothy Wolfe, president of the University of Missouri system, and R. Bowen Loftin, chancellor of the flagship Columbia campus. The protestors charged the university had reacted tepidly to anti-black slurs on campus and nearby.

Protest actions included a hunger strike by a graduate student, an encampment on the university quad, and an announcement by more than 30 black football players that they would not practice or play until Wolfe resigned. The player boycott could have cost Missouri $1 million in fines if a scheduled game had been cancelled.

Middleton, who described himself as a black student activist while a Missouri undergraduate in the 1960s, said that even though the protests 50 years ago had been “fairly successful in improving access,” the current generation “is much less willing to put up with the micro-aggressions and indignities faced by people of color than we were in the 1960s.”

The protests last fall also had gained momentum from “a perfect storm of circumstances,” Middleton said, including student concern with black protests and riots in Ferguson, Mo., a St. Louis suburb, and the impending loss of university health insurance by graduate students.

The elected student body president, Payton Head, a gay black male, had aroused considerable anger by Facebook posts describing slurs he encountered, he said.

Social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, had allowed protests to grow more quickly than they had had in the 1960s, Middleton said.

He said convincing parents — both black and white — that the Columbia campus is safe and welcoming would be a “hard sell.”

“Frankly, as a parent, I would be worried about sending a child to a campus that is violent and in disarray,” Middleton said.

But he said Missouri “is not violent and not in disarray.”

New diversity officers have been appointed, he said, new sensitivity and training programs initiated, and a comprehensive audit of race-relations attitudes and programs is underway.

Recent black graduates have told him that even though they encountered some hostility at the university, “it was a minor part of their experience at Missouri.”

Middleton said the situation at the University of Missouri and elsewhere in higher education “is a continuation of the fundamental flaw in this country that declared all people are created equal and at the same time held black people in bondage.”

“We as a nation haven’t worked our way out of that contradiction,” he said. But Middleton said he was confident that progress is being made.

In a related issue, Middleton said Melissa Click, an assistant professor who was fired by the university board, had “lost control” when she tried to block a reporter covering the protest and called for “some muscle” to eject him from the university quad.

But he said reporters “should realize that how they exercise (their) rights might make people uncomfortable.”

The audience at the Club included many graduates of the University of Missouri, which has one of the nation’s top journalism programs.

When Middleton was asked about prospects for the football team next fall, he called out, “M-I-Z.” The audience responded, “Z-O-U,” and cheered loudly.