It has been a tough year at the University of Missouri-Columbia. The racial tension that sparked the fall events is unlikely to be resolved any time soon, and faculty and administrators who engaged these issues have sometimes been condescending, incompetent and irresponsible.
In this the perspective of faculty is largely lost. I speak for myself, but I’ve served on the faculty for nearly 25 years, and my understanding of these events is shared by many colleagues.
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Professor Melissa Click’s behavior was rightfully described as “appalling.” The reason for this has nothing to do with the First Amendment, which protects us against government abridgment of certain rights.
Professor Click’s actions were inexcusable because she behaved in a manner inconsistent with our role as faculty. The relationship between faculty and students requires professional distance. This maintains the mutual respect necessary to fulfill our educational mission.
We are not our students’ friends; we are their teachers and mentors. We provide students with knowledge and perspective so they can engage the world in their own way and on their own terms. There’s a line between faculty and students that shouldn’t be crossed, and Professor Click crossed it.
There were also administrative failures. Those of former Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin and former system President Timothy M. Wolfe were the most visible, but there were others. MU has staff to maintain lines of communication among students, administrators and faculty, and to mediate campus conflicts. These people were either ineffective or exacerbated the situation.
Janna Basler, assistant director of Greek life, exemplified this as she escalated campus tension and justified her behavior by saying “she believed she had official authority to order media” from Carnahan Quadrangle.
Get a grip. Basler enjoys very limited authority, and that does not include deciding where people may stand in a public space. Her remarks reveal considerable administrative hubris.
Administrators should also leave the tweeting to B-list celebrities; it’s unbecoming.
Perhaps most damaging is that Melissa Click perpetuated an unfortunate stereotype of faculty. It’s said that there are stereotypes because there are types, and there are types in the academy.
Many of us have spent our professional lives in the university and sometimes don’t appreciate how we can appear and sound to the broader community. However, like all stereotypes, this image is overdrawn.
We’re adults, and our lives and values are similar to other Missourians’. We belong to houses of worship, our kids play soccer and, believe it or not, some vote for Republicans. It’s true that more than 100 faculty members signed a letter supportive of Professor Click, but this suggests she enjoys only modest support.
MU has more than 1,000 faculty members; I reside in the College of Arts and Science, and the large majority of these faculty — including most of Professor Click’s Communications Department colleagues — didn’t sign this document.
That said, the Board of Curators’ decision to fire Professor Click was a mistake. There are good reasons why the tenure process is lengthy and should be respected. The bar for tenure at MU is high. To be tenured, a professor should make scholarly contributions appropriate for a leading research university. This assessment requires review by outside experts, evaluating voluminous amounts of material and assessing years of teaching. The process includes several levels of review and is painfully slow, but it ensures that we have the best possible faculty.
I doubt Professor Click would have been tenured under this process. Her scholarship aside, Professor Click’s stature in the classroom was hopelessly compromised by her actions. That alone placed tenure in doubt.
Regardless, tenure should have been decided by our regular process because that is in the long-run best interest of the state.
Finally, most faculty members have a firm commitment to freedom of speech because this is central to our purpose. A university that restricts potentially offensive speech isn’t worth attending. It is incumbent on faculty such as myself to explain why protecting speech, including speech some find offensive, improves the human condition.
The University of Missouri will emerge from these trials stronger. MU is an institution: It was here long before I arrived and it will be here long after I’m gone. Such a great university is worth our patience and our investment.
Jay Dow is a University of Missouri-Columbia professor in the Department of Political Science.