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Angry Students, Alarmed Alumni
Angry Students, Alarmed Alumni

How institutions are navigating student protests over campus racism

By Lekan Oguntoyinbo


Reuters/Mike Hutchings

As massive student demonstrations against racial injustice swirled on the University of Missouri campus in fall 2015, officials worked desperately to stay on top of the rapidly evolving national story, which was alarming many alumni and donors.

In early November 2015, a black graduate student started a hunger strike to protest what he deemed the university's lackluster response to incidents of racial harassment, and the protests intensified soon after.

Representatives of the nation's most prominent news outlets trooped to the central Missouri campus in Columbia. Then, in a potentially financially damaging blow to the university, some black members of Missouri's football team announced a boycott of all football-related activities if the president didn't resign.

By November 9, University of Missouri System President Timothy Wolfe, the focus of black students' ire, announced his resignation. A few hours later, R. Bowen Loftin, chancellor of the system's flagship campus for just a year, quit as well.

"I didn't know the chancellor was resigning until he called me three minutes before the press conference to tell me," recalls Tom Hiles, the university's vice chancellor of advancement.

The timing couldn't have been worse.

A month before, in October 2015, amid great fanfare, the "Show Me" state's premier public university had launched a $1.3 billion comprehensive fundraising campaign, the largest in its history. Funding priorities include boosting the endowment; creating five to 10 signature research centers or institutes, each backed with endowments of at least $10 million; and building state-of-the-art academic facilities.

The initial response was positive. The kickoff highlighted a $25 million gift. Loftin appeared poised for a successful tenure as fundraiser-in-chief of the 177-year-old university.

But the complaints of racism that had festered for years boiled over. On September 12, 2015, after being called the N-word—for the second time—the student body president expressed his frustration with campus bigotry in a Facebook post. He detailed transgressions against a Muslim, a transgendered student, and people with disabilities. Students held a "Racism Lives Here" rally to raise awareness of the issues, but in October, a swastika was drawn in feces in a residence hall bathroom.

As the protests gained traction, some big donors became jittery. One donor contemplating a $12.5 million gift said he'd wait, Hiles says. Giving to the annual fund and the athletic program fell off, as did applications for admission.

Missouri is among more than 80 colleges and universities to experience student protests in recent years. Underrepresented students have publicly called on their institutions to address the often toxic environments they face as minorities. These efforts range from the viral 2013 #BBUM hashtag campaign—Being Black at the University of Michigan, a social media tactic marginalized students adopted worldwide—to dozens of protests in 2015–16.

The demonstrations have undermined advancement efforts, with alumni and donors questioning whether students have taken over. The protests are also forcing institutions to scrutinize their campus and address overt, subtle, and systemic racism.

What students want

Student activism is nothing new, but the diversity issues students are pushing institutions to address are more complex, says Benjamin Reese, vice president for institutional equity at North Carolina's Duke University. Changing demographics—increasing numbers of sexual, religious, racial, and ethnic minority students, for instance—"push us in leadership to create an environment that is more suitable for development and learning."

"It's about whether there are subtle practices or processes that mitigate against having a diverse environment," says Reese, past president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, who often travels to U.S. campuses to lead workshops on implicit bias and unconscious prejudices.

What's driving the protests? Why now?

"Race has gotten a new focus partly because of problems with police in some communities and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement," says Reese, referring to the activism that gained momentum during protests of the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. "Those factors have contributed to students around the country highlighting conditions in the academy that haven't been fully addressed or where the needle hasn't moved."

Many of the students' demands aim to reignite progress. The most common include the hiring of more minority faculty and senior administrators, the admission of more minority students, the resignation of faculty and administrators who are unsympathetic or ignorant to their plight, and the removal of racist symbols, particularly statues of historical figures known for their racist beliefs or policies.

A prominently placed statue of Cecil Rhodes was the impetus for protests that started in March 2015 at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Rhodes was a 19th-century businessman, politician, and racist archimperialist who helped pave the way for apartheid. (Rhodesia, a short-lived, white-minority-ruled country, was named for him, then renamed Zimbabwe in 1980.)

To the students, the statue symbolized the lack of progress in racial equality made since the fall of apartheid more than 20 years ago. They clamored for the statue to come down, and some expressed their feelings by covering it in feces.

Protests ballooned, and images of small groups of students burning vehicles and artwork, invading residences, and firebombing the vice-chancellor's office made international news. The university removed the statue, but the students continue to protest about other issues.

Staying in constant contact

Working without a dedicated playbook, Mizzou development officials maintained contact with donors, alumni, and other key constituents. They attempted to strike a fine balance to assure major stakeholders that the university wasn't rudderless, while also explaining that it was in the institution's best interests to address students' concerns.

During the crisis, Hines and his team had an easier time connecting with normally hard-to-reach constituents: "There was this Fortune 100 CEO. I emailed him and said I would be happy to give him information. He called me on my cell in 15 minutes."

The primary concern among many donors: leadership—or the apparent lack thereof.

"They felt the students were running the place," Hiles says. "And I said, ‘The bottom line is while I understand that sentiment, these students are our customers.' [Interim President] Mike Middleton said he's not going to apologize for listening to customers. He said it doesn't mean we agree with everything they say, but we will listen."

Many alumni who contacted administrators during the crisis did not believe racism was a problem, Hiles says. Yet some of the emails complaining about the protesting students were overtly racist. Hiles directed his team of gift and alumni relations officers to respond to all emails except for the racist ones. Those he saved. In discussions with skeptical alumni, he says, "I shared some of these emails and explained that there were reasons for students' concerns."

Despite higher acceptance rates of African-American students in recent decades, many felt unwelcomed. "African-American alumni told me about their experiences here," stories that mirrored the complaints of current students, Hiles says. "Sharing that information—the emails and the experiences of African-American alumni—with donors and other alumni gave them perspective."

Officials acknowledge a failing with broader communication efforts. "The No. 1 comment I've gotten in that retrospective lookback is that ‘Mizzou needs a crisis communications plan,' " says Jennifer Hollingshead, who became interim vice chancellor for marketing and communications in late November after the protests. "Mizzou has had a wonderfully in-depth, detailed, well-rehearsed crisis communications plan."

Careful not to criticize leaders during that tumultuous time, Hollingshead says the plan wasn't activated because of conventional thinking about what crises are and when the plan should come into play, such as during a security threat or significant weather event. "The idea that a campus crisis can take the form of a reputational crisis was not held in the forefront of people's minds," she says. If the plan was activated, leaders would have come together for quicker decision-making, set up phone banks, and delegated communications tasks.

Noting the resignations of both the system's and campus's top leaders, Hollingshead adds, "I don't think the plan would take into account that in one day there would have been a void in that leadership. That was pretty historic."

At Cape Town, administrators found that transparency with alumni and donors was key. The institution had to invest much more time communicating with alumni and donors, says Elle Williams, the university's communications officer. Officials listened to alumni and donors' concerns about unrest on the campus while also working to update them on the protests, the reasons behind them, and the efforts to make the campus tranquil and whole again.

"I think we've learned how to respond more quickly to our stakeholders," Williams says, adding that the university strives to alert them immediately about a crisis and update them as events develop. The vice-chancellor's willingness to subject himself to tough questions and criticism from stakeholders and the public has been good for the university and "has been of tremendous benefit to the work of our office," she says.

"Every time that the VC makes a clear and definitive statement, whether or not alumni and donors agree, they respect him and the university for engaging with them on a meaningful level as important stakeholders, as opposed to leaving them to read about it in the media," Williams says.

While it's too soon to say whether the protests are hurting alumni giving, Williams says the university recorded its highest fundraising total in 2015.

What's at stake

Like Missouri, other institutions must perform a careful balancing act when they respond to the protests, which can have major legal, financial, and political consequences.

The University of Texas at Austin successfully defended in court its decision to relocate a statue of Jefferson Davis, who led the slavery-supporting Confederacy during the U.S. Civil War, after the Sons of Confederate Veterans sued, arguing that UT violated the wishes of the donor who paid for the statue. On the campus since 1933, the statue had frequently been vandalized by students, who called it a symbol of racism.

The "Rhodes Must Fall" campaign launched at the University of Cape Town found its way to the U.K., where students demanded that Oriel College at the University of Oxford remove its monument to Cecil Rhodes. The college's announcement that it would consider the students' request set off a furor among alumni and donors, who canceled or threatened to cancel gifts. The college's governing body voted to keep the statue and include historical context on a nearby plaque.

Public institutions also face scrutiny from lawmakers who control state coffers. Earlier this year, a Republican state senator criticized University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross for meeting with students to discuss improving the campus climate for minorities. Sen. Steve Nass said that Cross needed to "stop wasting time appeasing the political correctness crowd."

For Yale University, the overriding consideration in deciding whether to strip the name of a slavery proponent from one of its residential colleges was the historical and educational value of the name. Protesters called for the college named for former U.S. Vice President John C. Calhoun to be renamed, but the Connecticut university demurred, arguing that doing so would "erase American history" and hide the "legacy of slavery."

Some administrators wouldn't even consider students' requests. In fall 2015, black students at Oberlin College sent President Marvin Krislov a 14-page list of demands that included a 4 percent increase in the enrollment of students of color from the Americas, the Caribbean, and Africa over the next six years; divestment from all prisons and Israel; and designated safe spaces for black students at several campus buildings.

In a statement posted on the Ohio college's website, Krislov said that while some of the demands resonated with him, he would not negotiate.

"Some of the solutions [the demand letter] proposes are deeply troubling," the statement said. "I will not respond directly to any document that explicitly rejects the notion of collaborative engagement. Many of its demands contravene principles of shared governance. And it contains personal attacks on a number of faculty and staff members who are dedicated and valued members of this community."

Campus healing

Students may not be getting everything they want, but their efforts are bearing fruit.

The University of Maryland recently renamed the football stadium that bore the name of a former president dedicated to keeping blacks out. President Wallace Loh formed the Maryland Dialogues on Diversity and Community to continue the discussion on race and racism, "even beyond the largely symbolic step of renaming the football stadium," says Peter Weiler, UMD's vice president of university relations.

Georgetown University is trying to track down the descendants of 275 slaves who were sold in the 1830s to help fund the university. Early in fall 2015, President John DeGioia formed a working group of academics, staff, and students to examine the university's historical ties to slavery, devise a plan to atone for its past, and improve inclusivity. A major issue: whether to rename two buildings named for the Jesuit priests and Georgetown presidents who organized the infamous slave sale. Some students believed the committee moved too slowly, and protests erupted.

"That galvanized and accelerated the process," says working group member Adam Rothman, an associate professor of history at the D.C. institution and expert on the history of trans-Atlantic slavery. In response, the university temporarily renamed one of the buildings Freedom Hall and the other Remembrance Hall.

Brown University's Brian Clark, director of news and editorial development, notes the importance of being proactive. Brown has committed more than $100 million to improve inclusivity by increasing financial support to low-income students, doubling faculty from underrepresented groups over the next 10 years, and implementing other initiatives.

Work to create a more diverse campus was triggered a few years ago when Brown sought to atone for the slave ties of John Brown, an 18th-century merchant and slave trader who helped found the Rhode Island institution.

Missouri is also working to improve the campus climate. It's published two documents—The State of Mizzou I and II—providing context for the events of last fall and updating constituents about new initiatives, respectively. Administrators are holding listening sessions to discuss moving forward; a department of inclusion will be headed by a vice-chancellor; administrators will undergo equity and implicit bias training; and a lecture series will explore the African-American experience in the state.

The university is working to restore its reputation and boost enrollment, including launching a new admissions marketing campaign. Its commercial during Southeastern Conference football games this fall will take on new significance—"We all feel a sense that the eyes of the country are on us," Hollingshead says—and will be augmented by a print and digital campaign. The message will acknowledge the mistakes made and how campus is improving but remind supporters that the university remains the institution they know and love.

"One of the biggest challenges is that people see the events very differently. For us in marketing and communications, we hold the idea that two truths can coexist," Hollingshead says. "We want to make Mizzou a better place and more inclusive. That truly is a top priority. At the same time, that doesn't mean we haven't continued to do great things as a university. That's the tricky balance that we need to strike."

About the Author Lekan Oguntoyinbo

Lekan Oguntoyinbo, a freelance writer, is a veteran of several major dailies, including the Detroit Free Press and Cleveland Plain Dealer.




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