Happy Thanksgiving — U of Missouri Op-Ed

Florence Dome

Inside the Duomo, Florence/Firenze, Italy

It’s Thanksgiving Day in America, and I’ll keep it short, while posting a more pedestrian op-ed on the crisis over both racism and control at the University of Missouri.  These events unspooled over the last few weeks, only to be eclipsed by the mass murder in Paris by ISIS.  The fact that both thrive on tragedy should be a wake-up call to all sentient actors.  Is this how we want to run our civilization?  Can we move to that higher plane of understanding that it’s not just individuals, but systems that produce certain outcomes?

I’m happy this Thanksgiving, as I usually am on a daily basis, for my loved ones and myself being able to get up and breathe.  That’s how simple I am.  But if I had a wish, it would be this:  that everyone in the world spent a little more time stretching their timeline, and spatial scale of consequence, and think just a little longer about how our actions affect other living things and the planet.  Everything we do is a ripple, and reaches out and interacts with all other things around it.  And we, in turn, are reached by others’ ripples.  And though we all must surrender, in some fashion, to the larger currents moving our time, we all have some level of choice where we seek to send out our energy.  Like moving our hands in the water, while standing in a cool lake on a summer day, we have some agency to send our ripples where we want.  I’m hoping in the coming months, we’ll all think about that just a little more profoundly, and think about where, and how far, our waves will carry. Because like it or not, connection is real.  And our ability to understand is all about empathy.

Happy Thanksgiving — here’s the op-ed.  This first ran in the Moscow-Pullman Daily News Nov. 14, 2015.

Time for Systemic Change at Missou

For those of us with a fascination for land-grant institution governance, this week’s events at the University of Missouri – Columbia are proving to be a fascinating spectacle for what happens to both upper administrations and student bodies when incidents provoke a breaking point response. Here’s the short version.

The University of Missouri has had problems with racial incidents for a long time. I dug through past press, and while the press is focusing on a couple of key provocative incidents, including a feces-smeared swastika in a bathroom, and cotton balls scattered in front of the Black Culture Center, there are more disturbing things. For example, one African-American faculty member reported being called the N-word to her face by other faculty – and without the fanfare of someone distorting events to get attention.

One African-American student went on a hunger strike, and demanded the resignation of Mizzou President Tim Wolfe for inattention to racial climate issues on campus. This was followed by the threat of a boycott by African-American athletes on the Mizzou football team. The same day after Wolfe’s resignation, nine deans of a variety of Mizzou colleges demanded the resignation of the system Chancellor, R. Bowen Loftin. Chancellors are one step down from presidents, and in charge of the Columbia campus. The deans stated that Loftin was responsible for a “toxic environment through threat, fear and intimidation.”

As I write this, the Mizzou campus has not quite returned to normal. Protests continue, and now Mizzou must come to terms with finding a new set of leaders to fix this mess.

But this mess will not be so easy to fix. The Board of Curators, those responsible for the system, similar to WSU’s Board of Regents, conceded to a number of demands for diversity training for administration, faculty and staff, a doubling in the number of African-American faculty, and increased support for mental health facilities on campus. I’m sure the Curators had no problem with the first and third, but increased diversity faculty is something that many administrators promise, but none can really deliver – because they’re constrained by employment law. Part of it depends on convincing more African-American faculty to live in Columbia. And after all this, as well as Ferguson, why would a talented person want to move there? Having been involved in similar searches myself in our own rural campus, these things are just tough. It’s nuts to think that smart diversity faculty don’t have other options.

What is as telling is what the Curators didn’t accept. They didn’t agree with fixing the broken health care insurance system for graduate students, or real concerns about grad students working at the university living in poverty. Interestingly enough, they also refused to cede a larger role to the diversity community in the next search for Wolfe’s and Bowin’s replacements.

What to make of this? Fundamentally, Mizzou is going to remain a system with a very authoritarian social structure. And the only way such social structures handle large-scale change is with some level of violence and chaos. Forget the various actors, as well as the endless academic fascination, on both sides of the political spectrum, with finding ubermenschen to run these increasingly complex systems. Not enough information can flow in this multiple stacked hierarchical systems.

And the powerless are going to remain functionally powerless. When the institutions’ governing board fails on act on employees’ fundamental right to eat and be healthy, nothing good is coming downstream. Though it may be a modestly popular current view that penury is permissible in the cause of one’s education, leadership shouldn’t expect to sleep well at night as long as this is the case.

Social justice needs to consist not just of non-discriminatory environments. It has to consist of modified governance structures, and baseline support for living. Otherwise, we shouldn’t be surprised when the mob comes once more with pitchforks.

 

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