My alma mater — Mizzou — is a disappointment but not a surprise, given its history.
As has been reported broadly, the first black student was not enrolled at the University of Missouri until 1950. Missouri, after all, was a slave state, and the remnants of that culture apparently live on.
Contrast that with the University of Kansas, situated in a free state.
Its first black students were enrolled in the 1870’s, and the first black student to graduate was in 1885.
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On paper, it would seem like racial relations should be better by light years in Lawrence. In fact, efforts at diversity and smooth race relations have been a top priority at KU, but things are not as smooth there as one might expect.
Recently, 1,000 students and faculty gathered in a town hall forum led by KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little. The meeting got very testy, as a small group of black students openly criticized the university for being insensitive to their needs.
They cited a list of 15 demands. Among them was a call for “intense inclusion and belonging training” for all students, staff, and administration (which the chancellor just agreed to). They also demanded KU establish a Multicultural Student Government. And they asked for an increase in the hiring of diverse faculty. (KU has a “Hiring for Excellence” initiative that does just that.)
Subsequently, black students have called for the resignations of three student leaders, calling them insensitive to their situation. The three have responded with a list of commitments they are willing to make to ease relations.
Under Gray-Little, an African-American chancellor, the campus has been aggressively dealing with racial issues.
While the University of Missouri has just declared its intent to hire an officer of diversity, KU created such a department in 2011, prioritizing it by naming a vice provost to head up the effort. This is no one-man program. There is an organizational chart to illustrate the breadth of the diversity effort.
As E. Nathan Thomas III, Vice Provost for Diversity and Equity at KU, told me, “MU is late to the game.”
At MU, a graduate student went on a hunger strike, and the black athletes on the football team threatened to boycott all games and practices until the president of the university resigned, which he did, along with the chancellor.
The reasons given were that complaints of bigotry, racial epithets, and a swastika on a dorm room received too little attention from the administration.
But what then of KU?
The university seems to be proactive about combating racism. For example, a policy in place makes it mandatory for any employee or faculty who hears of discrimination on or off campus to report it immediately to the appropriate diversity authority for investigation and disciplinary action if required.
“We will not tolerate discrimination,” said Thomas. “If that is not clearly articulated, nothing ends up happening, and nobody has moved on it.”
Indeed, that is apparently what happened at MU. Nothing happened to deal with the complaints, until students took matters into their own hands.
But with all the things KU seems to be doing right, why all these protests and demands?
Because bigotry still exists, on and off campus. No matter what a university does, it may not be enough.
Certainly, KU has given this issue a much higher priority than MU.
Sadly, whether even the most aggressive efforts, such as those at KU, can be successful is an open question.
Steve Rose, longtime Johnson County columnist: firstname.lastname@example.org.