Will Missouri moment lead to toppling of more US college presidents?

Factors that led to the president and a chancellor of the University of Missouri resigning may not be duplicated elsewhere. But one thing is clear: Students feel more empowered to push for change at the top.

(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)
A member of the black student protest group Concerned Student 1950 gestures while addressing a crowd following the announcement that University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe would resign, at the university in Columbia, Mo. on Nov. 9. Few paid attention when a black student started a hunger strike at the University of Missouri to protest racial strife on campus. As soon as the football team supported that hunger strike by refusing to practice for or play in the school’s lucrative NCAA games, the university’s president and chancellor were forced out and changes were discussed.

Just days after the unprecedented resignations of the president and chancellor of the University of Missouri, protests over racial issues at another college pushed out a high-level campus administrator.

Mary Spellman, the dean of students at Claremont McKenna College in southern California, resigned Thursday. Protesters had been pushing her office to do more to respond to students of color. They started calling for her resignation after she responded to a Latina student’s concerns last month by saying the college would do more to help students who “don’t fit our CMC mold.”

At Ithaca College in upstate New York, students of color have put forward a series of demands, including that President Tom Rochon step down. They say that in the wake of several instances of racism on campus, he has not done enough to respond. The student government and the faculty are planning votes soon on whether they have confidence in his leadership.

Will the Missouri moment lead to a toppling of college and university presidents around the country?

That remains to be seen. The confluence of events at Missouri, including the football players’ involvement, makes the situation unique and perhaps unlikely to spark such a direct domino effect, some higher education experts say.

But one thing is clear: Students feel more empowered now to push for change at the very top. And for many college and university leaders, the need to listen, speak, and act skillfully in response to concerns about racial and cultural diversity is now top of mind in a way it wasn’t just a week ago.

Whether campuses roiled with racial tension will see lasting change may hinge not so much on whether leaders are replaced, but whether entrenched elements of the culture really give way to “efforts to bring issues of race, power, and privilege more to the center of how we think about the purpose of higher education,” says Jay Dee, director of the higher education doctoral program at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

“Sometimes the changes are transformative, but the danger is that the wounds of the past get bandaged over temporarily and the institution returns to the status quo,” Mr. Dee says.

Protesters are embracing more extreme tactics – everything from hunger strikes to walkouts to athletes refusing to play – because these issues have been simmering for years, and “lower stakes tactics have not been fruitful,” he adds.

The rise of social media is also amplifying the pressure on college leaders to respond more quickly.

“We’re seeing an intersection between the immediacy of change that students want … and institutions’ slower ways of making decisions,” through task forces and consensus, says Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA, representing student affairs administrators.

College leaders have to find the balance between addressing racism while at the same time allowing for constitutionally protected speech that some students or faculty may find offensive.

Indeed, a number of presidents this week were quick to make statements to that effect, and some took hours to meet with students and assure them that they would address their concerns.

When about 30 student activists at Virginia Commonwealth University flooded the president’s office Thursday morning demanding more black professors and more cultural competency training, President Michael Rao heard them out for several hours and said he shared their vision, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports

At the University of Kansas, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little met with hundreds of students Wednesday for more than two hours. But it wasn’t sufficient for some student activists. Kennedi Grant, leader of a student multicultural group, said the meeting was more of a publicity stunt, Inside Higher Ed reports.

One common campus response is the hiring of chief diversity officers and other staff to help address racial issues.

Mr. Rochon, under fire at Ithaca College, announced Wednesday that an administrator would step into the new role of chief diversity officer while a national search takes place to fill the position permanently.

But some see adding diversity staff as simply contributing to administrative bloat on college campuses. “College presidents will try to buy off the protesters by creating new diversity positions … though I don’t think it will ultimately solve anything,” says Hans Bader, a former education lawyer who served in the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

For students of color to flex their muscle by ousting presidents in some ways undermines the idea that that they are marginalized, and shows the pervasiveness of “political correctness” in higher education, Mr. Bader adds. Would conservative students who feel insulted and marginalized on campus dare to demand a leader step down, he asks rhetorically.

Diversity staff can be effective if the leadership really wants to change the core of the institution, but “if it’s just added on … sometimes it’s a marketing tactic,” Dee says. 

If students of color believe that’s what’s happening, more of them are likely to exercise their own forms of activism along the lines of a stand Justine Stephens recently took at Ithaca College: On Monday, she withdrew her consent to be part of an Ithaca College magazine story that had been planned, “until Tom Rochon resigns as president.” The note to the magazine that was shared on the Facebook page of the activist group POC at IC continued, “I do not want my blackness used as an admissions tactic.”

As the story continues to play out at the University of Missouri, with the appointment of new top officials, the difficulties of bringing communities together to talk civilly about racial issues have been on full display.

On Thursday, just one day after a student at another Missouri campus was charged with making terrorist threats, Chuck Henson, the new interim vice chancellor for inclusion, diversity, and equity on the Columbia campus, said he was shocked by that some people online talked about wanting to see him dead.

Being in a leadership position at colleges and universities today “is not for the timid,” Mr. Kruger says. 

Associated Press material was used in this report.

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