The books filling the shelves in the office Mike Middleton has occupied since becoming interim president of the University of Missouri System nearly four weeks ago don’t belong to him.
They, like the racial turmoil on the Columbia campus, were there when he took the job. But, he points out, he likes at least one of the books, “Nelson Mandela: Conversations With Myself.”
Middleton, 68, stepped away from his recent retirement into the temporary job when Tim Wolfe resigned under pressure after student protests over racial inequity on the campus. The chancellor on the Columbia campus, R. Bowen Loftin, stepped down the same day under pressure from faculty who said they had no confidence in his leadership.
It’s a crisis, Middleton says, he’s well suited to manage.
At the time of his interim appointment, Middleton was working part time at the university directing efforts to improve inclusion, diversity and equity within campus activities. He’d been at the university 30 years, including 17 as deputy chancellor.
A 1968 graduate of the MU Law School, he also had a long career as a civil rights attorney and a university professor. When the rudderless university began buzzing over who would lead the four campuses — Columbia, Kansas City, St. Louis and Rolla — while a search for a long-term president was launched, Middleton’s name rose to the top of the list.
When The Kansas City Star sat down with Middleton last week for an interview, he spoke candidly in measured tones with his voice in full bass. He talked about growing up in the Deep South, racism then and now, and conditions on the Mizzou campus. He also addressed student protests, why he took this job and how he intends to make changes in the short time he’ll sit behind the big desk in the president’s office.
Q: Why put retirement on hold to take this position?
A: I have been asked that question and I have been advised by people very close to me not to do it. My sister in particular wrote a very long email imploring me to take care of myself and do what I wanted to do. But in the end I decided that this is what I want to do.
I care about this university. And I care about its reputation. I know that it is better than the last couple of months suggests that it is. And I was excited about the opportunity to try to restore this university to the place it held before and the place that it aspires to be.
When I was here as a student, everyone thought very highly of the University of Missouri and I have only seen it grow in its ability to do what it does. So I did this because someone needed to do it and I thought I was in a pretty good position to do that. Retirement can wait.
Q: Given the state of the university at the time you came into office — the claims of systemic racism, systemic oppression, marginalization of students of color — what credentials do you have that make you more prepared to fill the slot than others who were considered?
A: I understand clearly what marginalized students and faculty mean when they express what they have been expressing for the past several months. I have experienced all that myself.
I went to law school so that I could do something in the civil rights arena. I was very much inspired by Thurgood Marshall and Bob Carter and other lawyers who came to Mississippi, where I was living as a child. I saw the change they were able to make in that profession.
When I finished law school here at the University of Missouri School of Law, I became an attorney with the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice. During my 15-year career in federal service, I was deputy assistant secretary of education for the Office for Civil Rights. I was an associate general counsel at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. So I’ve got credentials in that area.
But also in Washington, I was a manager of some fairly large offices in the federal system for the last 10 years of my employment there and I developed some understanding of management of organizations and organizational development and budgets and that kind of thing. In my 17 years at MU in the chancellor’s office, I became quite familiar with how the university operates. So I think my training, my experience, my background all suit me nicely for this position.
I have been able to confirm my impression that the folks at the system were really dedicated and committed and knew what they were doing. There is a culture here that is very supportive of the four campuses.
Q: Did you at any point consider that you may have been asked into this position not solely because you are highly qualified but also because you happen to be African-American?
A: I am an African-American and that is who I am. So whenever anyone considers me, they are by definition considering the fact of who I am. So no, that does not bother me.
It bothers me when someone discriminates against me, discounts my qualifications and marginalizes me because I am a black man. But I have no problem with people recognizing that there are times when my being an African-American is an asset that ought to be utilized. In this society, unfortunately, race permeates most decisions and activities that we engage in. That is the problem, that race is often considered in ways that do damage to the institution.
I have always been surprised that this country has had the success that it has had excluding large parts of the population from any meaningful involvement and decision-making. That included blacks, Hispanics and women to a large degree. So we have been developing as a nation with our right arm tied behind us for hundreds of years.
It is remarkable that we have gotten this far, but it is time for us to include everyone in the process. And I think that will only make us better and stronger.
Q: How much of your time in this job will be about addressing the immediate racial and social problems on the Columbia campus and how much will be dealing with running a four-campus system? Because you are not a campus chancellor. You’re a system president.
A: I am well aware of that. The difficulty that we are going to have is my job is to run the four-campus system and I fully intend to do that. But I have to tell you that it is going to be very difficult for me to do that if we don’t get the issues that gave rise to our current situation resolved, or at least to build a structure within the system and on the campuses to get the right people in place, to get the right committees and task forces operational to give them some direction on what they are being called to do.
And that is to review everything that we do and recommend modifications to improve the way we operate. Find best practices from the research and institutions around the country that we can implement here to move the ball further to get some resources devoted to sustaining that kind of effort. To ensure that it is a true collaboration with all stakeholders.
And once I get that process going, I am hopeful that I will be able to turn my attention to managing the university system. I know that my board expects that of me.
But I also know that my board understands that we are coming out of a crisis and it is going to be very difficult to rebuild trust and confidence in the system without bringing our current set of issues to some resolution.
Q: This sounds like a long-term task. Do you have time to do all that?
A: I certainly have time to set the process in motion. I mean we are working hard right now. We have already secured a chief diversity officer for the Columbia campus. There were such positions at St. Louis, Kansas City and Rolla already. We are in the process of searching for a chief diversity officer for the system.
We are putting together a systemwide task force to address these issues, and I fully expect each campus to develop a campus-level task force to feed ideas into that larger system-level task force. We’ve got a process in place to review our collective rules and regulations to ensure they are tight and clear and don’t produce any unintended consequences.
We have got lots of things in motion. It won’t take us long to get the process started. But as you point out, this is a very, very complex, long-term problem. It hasn’t been solved in the 50 years since the Civil Rights Act, and there wasn’t much effort to solve it prior to 1964. So we haven’t been working on this issue effectively for a long time. But the number of years that it has taken to get us where we are today suggests that it is going to take quite some time to bring these issues to a final conclusion.
But what we can do is tap the enthusiasm and excitement that has been created by this crisis among people in our community, supporters of the university, people in the legislature. People all over want this thing resolved, and I think people all over realize that saying that is not going to do it. So we are going to have to come together around the table and have some serious discussions, some serious scholarly work, some honest appraisals of policies and practices and programs and really focus our attention on moving this issue forward.
That is really all I expect to really be able to do in the year that I have. But we will get that done.
Q: What is different about the student protests in Columbia and on other campuses across the country today compared to those that occurred on this campus when you were here as a student?
A: Well, when I was a student here, there were very few students of color on this campus, so our numbers were small. We didn’t have as large a voice. We didn’t have as large a support system of like-minded colleagues. So our movement was a bit more subdued. Our marches were 10 or 15 people. The Legion of Black Collegians when we founded it probably had maybe 10 members. And in my day, I think that my generation necessarily developed some coping mechanisms to deal with the subtle microaggresions, the effects of implicit bias. When someone was overtly antagonistic, you had to have a reaction. But you kind of learned how to not allow some of these subtle acts to deter you from what you were trying to do.
I grew up in Mississippi. I was very accustomed to being discriminated against on a daily basis. I mean it was in your face — men and women colored restrooms at gas stations, that was common. Having a clerk tell me when I was 7 years old when I asked her why I couldn’t try on a pair of shoes that my mother was trying to buy me and she told me that no self-respecting white child would put those shoes on after they had been on my feet.
Those kinds of things were daily occurrences. So when that is happening to you, you have to decide whether you are going to let that destroy you or whether you are going to push through it and try to achieve something.
I think this generation of young people have not had that kind of harsh experience with racism. So you get a combination of a larger number of young people — who are much brighter than I was at their age, by the way — who are just unwilling to put up with that kind of treatment, and the numbers are large enough that they can support each other. They can organize themselves better than we did back in the ’60s.
I think the other factor is that back in the ’60s there were some other issues that society certainly viewed as more important. The largest protests that I was involved with in the ’60s were anti-war protests. So the race issue was marginalized because of the larger anti-war movement, so it was just a different time, different generations of young people. A whole different experience.
But it is all part of the same movement. I mean this movement, this struggle has been going on since slavery, and the struggle changes form depending upon the social circumstance at the time. So it is not dramatically different. These students were doing exactly the same things that we were doing. It is almost from the playbook. Different but at the same time not that different.
Q: Since you have been in this position, have you met with some of the protesting students — Concerned Student 1950, graduate students? And what kinds of things did you discuss?
A: I have met with students from all of those groups over the past year and a half, and obviously we have discussed their frustrations and we have discussed the history. I am a member of a race relations committee that the faculty council put together on the Columbia campus when I was a campus person. That committee discussed these issues all summer. So those conversations have been ongoing.
But I have met with any number of students. Payton Head (the student body president who was called the N-word on campus), I met when he was a freshman here and we have related well over the years. I don’t think I have had time to talk to them since I took this position, other than the listening session the Board of Curators had here on Nov. 20. There were a number of students who came and presented their concerns to the board. I have told a few of them that I am relying on them to come to the table and help us devise solutions to these problems. We need their input, we need their insights, we need their suggestions.
But I also told them let’s not do it now. This is finals. You have got to maintain your attention on your studies.
Q: What does the university need to do to restore faculty, student and graduate student trust?
A: I think what we need to do is demonstrate a commitment to working cooperatively, collaboratively with faculty, student, staff alums and all the other stakeholders on resolving all the issues that confront us. I think it is important to remind everyone what we are as a university.
We educate 77,000 students in the state of Missouri on our four campuses. We have got a hospital system that provides health care to millions of people in mid-Missouri. We have all sorts of research going on on our campuses, and that research is advancing the health and quality of life for people in Missouri and around the world.
We are connected internationally to great universities and do collaborative research, collaborative work on all kinds of issues that are going to move our culture forward. And I think that people need to be reminded of who we are and what we do and the value that we provide to the state of Missouri and to the nation.
We are a huge economic engine for the state of Missouri. Our extension programs hit every county in Missouri with valuable information that helps Missourians live better lives. So this university is of great value to the state of Missouri. And that is not changed by these incidents that we are dealing with.
These incidents pointed out a weakness in our culture, and we will take care of that. But don’t let that distract you from understanding the 175-year history of this institution and what we do and continue to do for the people of Missouri.
And I think if we can get that message across and reassure people that we have people in place who are managing this institution well and we are advancing this institution and growing it and making it better, as we have for the last 175 years, that will continue.
Mike Middleton’s inspiration
“In our resolve to restore confidence in the University of Missouri System, it will take every member of our diverse university community coming together to address the very human issues of marginalization so that we may then return to focusing on our mission of education, research, economic development and service.” — Mike Middleton, inspired by a Nelson Mandela quote:
“In real life we deal not with gods, but with ordinary humans like ourselves: men and women who are full of contradictions, who are stable and fickle, strong and weak, famous and infamous.” — Nelson Mandela