Week 45: Concerned alumna 2015

A lot has been happening at my alma mater over the past few weeks. Much of it has been bad, but some of it has been good. There has been injustice, but now we have hope for reconciliation and progress. I have been following as tensions built over the past few months, and I have been reading about the events of the past week for both personal investment and work purposes.

Many people have asked me questions or wanted my thoughts. I have many, many thoughts and feelings on the matter. It is all so tense that I am afraid to share them for fear someone will misinterpret or misjudge or lash out at me. But then I remind myself that one of the root issues here is the need for an open exchange of ideas and the need for voices to be heard. Also, the First Amendment rights of free speech and free press are center stage.

As such, as a journalist and a Mizzou Tiger, I feel a duty to share my thoughts, even if just to get them more organized than they are in my head.

Here goes:

I love the University of Missouri with my whole heart. It is a wonderful place where I learned and grew and explored. I was taught by incredible professors, and I met amazing friends. I cannot say enough good things about the place that I will always think of as a home.

I was shocked and deeply troubled by the racist and intolerant incidents over the past few months. I find them deplorable and unacceptable. It blows my mind that these things happened on a college campus in the year 2015, and it upsets me greatly that young, promising college students had to experience such hate and intolerance.

I was saddened to see the school that I love so much thrust into the national spotlight in such a negative way. I was frustrated to hear people who know nothing about Mizzou or the state of Missouri offering their opinions and casting their judgments on both the matter and the people who make up the community.

I felt my Missouri defensiveness flare up. Even since I left the midwest, I have been defending Missouri to residents of both coasts. No, it’s not redneck; no, it’s not the South; no, it’s not all rural. Yes, it has cities; yes, it is interesting; yes, it is progressive. Do not judge a place or its people, and do not make assumptions about what it is like, if you have never been there.

I feel a need, now, to defend Mizzou. The incidents are deplorable; by no means will I ever defend those. But I will defend the 95% of the campus that feels the way I do. These acts of hate and racism were perpetrated by a tiny fraction of the Mizzou community. Those individuals do not represent the whole. Mizzou as a whole does not, I believe, have a culture of racism. It is not a racist place. To a great, great extent, Mizzou is a place of equality and acceptance. I firmly believe the vast majority of the people, programs and occurrences on the campus will support my claim.

I could be wrong. I have never been a student of color on the Mizzou campus. It is possible there were things I did not see or experience. If that is the case, then I am truly sorry for those who have seen and experienced. They deserve better. Even if that’s not the case, it is always the duty and responsibility of all of us to stand up to and stop that tiny fraction that perpetrates injustice. A lack of action in that regard sits at the root of the past few weeks.

I think the situation at Mizzou did not have to get to this point. The president, at least to start, didn’t have to do anything massive. But he had to do something. He had to offer more than a plan of action to be released in six months. In that, he failed. He did not take things seriously, or he turned a blind eye. He left students to feel their voices weren’t heard, that he did not want to engage with them, that they were not important. That is unacceptable on a college campus, where discussion and dialogue, growth and exchange of views — not to mention students — are of the utmost importance.

I am sad things escalated as far as they did. I think if conversations had been welcomed and if an early stand had been taken by campus leadership, things would not have elevated to a level of extreme inaction leading to extreme protests leading to extreme demands leading to extreme results. That sentence might be an exaggeration, but all of this worries me because rarely do I think the extreme is the solution to anything. Resignations, hunger strikes, ultimatums — none of those will lead to the answer. Almost always, the answer lies somewhere in the middle of the extremes. I hope we are still able to find that answer.

I will own that maybe things needed to get to this point. Maybe campus leadership was that bad, and if the escalation had not occurred, no progress would have been made. That is entirely possible. At the same time, I do not believe the president’s resignation, in and of itself, will change anything. It won’t change attitudes or actions among administration or students. That can only come through continuing the dialogue that has been started. That is the only way to bring real change.

I think it is unfair to describe Mizzou as an “overwhelmingly white” campus and make that inherently critical. Yes, the campus is very white. The state of Missouri is whiter. On a campus that is overwhelmingly in-state, it would follow that a majority of the students would be white. I do not think that, in and of itself, is something to condemn. It does not mean there is no diversity or the school is racist. However, if diversity of all forms is not encouraged and sought out, and if the campus is not made to have an inclusive and welcoming atmosphere, then we would have problems.

I believe racism is classless. It does not matter how much money someone has or how much money his or her parents have. Dollar signs cannot protect an individual from judgment or intolerance or hatred. That is true of all forms of prejudice; they exist at every level of our society and in every tax bracket. At the same time, I think there is a big difference between institutional racism and a few bigots running their mouths and acting offensively.

I am proud of the students for standing up to make their voices heard, for knowing they have a right to tolerance and fairness, for demanding their school listen to and protect them. I am proud of the athletes for doing the same, for remembering they are part of the student body too, for realizing the power they hold — through their role on campus and on the school’s bottom line — and using that power for good. I am proud of their coach for standing by them, for recognizing the importance of their exercise of their rights and voices, for making his support of his team known.

I fear the impact of sweeping demands, rash judgments and irrevocable consequences. I do not think a student protest asking for “XYZ or else” and succeeding is a good precedent to set. I do not think a hunger strike is a rational or even sane way to effect change, though it did draw attention to the issue. I worry the leaders who took the fall were devoted servants of the university who never did anything except what they thought best for the students and institution. I fear the creation of a culture of divisiveness, in which differences translate to opposition and dissenting voices feel unable to speak.

I am appalled by the students and professors who obstructed the First Amendment. The exact amendment that allowed them to protest allowed journalists to cover their protest, yet they tried to intimidate, obstruct and even threaten the journalists into leaving. It didn’t work. I am proud of the journalism students for standing up for themselves and their story and for representing my J-School with dignity and integrity. I sincerely hope the professors are promptly removed from all roles at the university, and I am thrilled with my old journalism dean for demanding as much.

I hope the Mizzou community can now move in the right direction. I hope people on all sides can come together. I hope voices will be heard and discussions will be had. I hope hatred and intolerance of all forms will be denounced and forced out. I hope students and faculty alike will learn from these months and engage in conversations about how we should perceive, engage and treat others. I hope Mizzou becomes a place of greater acceptance, openness, diversity and kindness.

Finally, I hope that as this important work is done, as lessons are learned and pain is healed, we will never forget that we are all Tigers.

MIZ. Forever.

Endnotes:

Currently reading: The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins

Song of the week: Ivory Layne’s “Disappointed”

Currently watching: I am behind on ALL of my shows

Plans for the weekend: Catch up on my life. Work out, run errands, read, sleep, clean my apartment, cook. And go see my pal James Bond with some girlfriends.

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