Top administrators at the University of Missouri Columbia campus on Tuesday discussed efforts the university has made in the past year to improve diversity, inclusion and race relations.
Kevin McDonald, interim vice chancellor for diversity, equity and inclusion, said the university is putting $1.6 million toward doubling its minority faculty numbers to 13 percent in four years. Of that, $600,000 would go toward faculty recruitment and retention, and $1 million would be aimed at bringing in minority doctoral candidates and preparing them for tenure track teaching posts.
Earlier this year, data obtained by The Star through a Freedom of Information Act request showed that in the last two academic years, of the 451 faculty members hired at the Columbia campus just 19 were African-American.
University leaders also said Tuesday that starting this year, biannual campus climate and diversity surveys will be conducted on all four campuses in the system. The surveys will measure how well the university is doing with about $4.2 million worth of new initiatives it’s launching to create a “framework,” for diverse and inclusive campuses.
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UM System interim President Mike Middleton and interim MU Chancellor Hank Foley joined McDonald at the press conference.
“There was no one cause for what happened 10 months ago on this campus, and there will be no one solution,” Foley said. “We are working tirelessly to move toward being more inclusive.”
Middleton insisted the university was committed to the challenge of improving race relations but said, “We know full well that this is just scratching the surface.”
He said the initiatives were more than mere public relations.
“I’d say we’re very, very serious about this,” Middleton said. “The Board (of Curators) is very serious about it. I’m very serious about it. The reason I came out of my wonderful retirement was to really try to set this issue up for the next president to move forward....
“This is not PR. This is very, very serious, and we really do intend to be a national leader in this area.”
Racial tensions erupted on the campus last November when Concerned Student 1950 — a group of predominantly black students — led a series of protests including a tent city erected in the center of campus.
Students said that the university lacked diversity, especially among the faculty; that minority students felt isolated; and that MU’s leaders failed to respond to reports that students had been called racial slurs on campus.
Those protests led to a student hunger strike, football players threatening to boycott a game and the resignations of the system president and the campus chancellor.
Foley said Tuesday the protests were not the only reason the two were forced to leave their positions. Infighting among university leadership and faculty distrust of that leadership made the two top jobs vulnerable.
“It is true that when there are fault lines in a management team, stress can open them up. I think that is what happened last year.”
In the end, the university’s tarnished reputation was partly blamed for this year’s 5 percent drop in enrollment.
The sit-ins, marches and rallies have slowed now, and Foley said university leaders are focused on “rebuilding enrollment, restoring reputation… and marketing Mizzou much more than ever before in the past.”
That includes doubling the number of academic recruiters, putting an emphasis on southwest Missouri in recruiting, using social media and launching a new media campaign.
And to students who didn’t return to the university because of last year’s unrest, Foley said, “Come back, come back.”
The university is also poised to hire new administrators to fill a long list of vacancies, including positions now held by interim leaders on the MU campus.
Those hires most likely won’t come until after the first of the year when a new system president and MU chancellor are in place, Middleton said.
Pam Henrickson, who heads the system board of curators, said that the search for a new president is on track and that curators have identified a list of good candidates. She declined to say how many candidates curators are looking at.
This fall’s semester began with thousands of new freshmen in a mandatory awareness session around issues of racism and diversity as part of their orientation. The message of inclusion is plastered all over campus at the bottom of event fliers.
And just a month into the fall semester, university leaders are not the only ones reflecting on last year’s protests. Faculty and students on the Columbia campus also had some thoughts this week.
“There have been a lot of changes for the better seen growing in the administration,” said Jalyn Henderson, a junior majoring in journalism and a peer adviser for residence life. “That they said last year they would start mandatory diversity training for incoming freshmen and then they followed through with it is super huge.”
Diversity 101 training courses also are being offered to faculty and staff. And recently a whole new division of diversity and inclusion was created. The university promises that every campus will have a vice chancellor for that division. That was another promise the university made last year to students.
On the university website is a series of tips and handouts about inclusion and race, including one on ways to identify and confront bias and prejudice. Another tip includes advice on talking about race.
On top of that the university is preparing a campus climate survey to determine the sentiments of students, faculty and staff surrounding race relations, among other social behaviors.
“I think they are doing the best that they can at making a conscious effort to include students and faculty and give an opportunity for voices to be heard,” Henderson said.
Stephanie Shonekan, who heads the Black Studies Department, is optimistic about MU’s future with race relations.
“In my classroom, on this campus, I see that students, black and white, still want to continue to engage on the issue of race,” Shonekan said. “They understand that what happened here is not isolated. Also there is a sense of pride of being the campus that raised the issue to a national level.”
But Berkley Hudson, who heads a 12-member faculty race relations committee at MU, which has been meeting since May 2015, said the university has only scratched the surface in fixing the racial problems.\
“There has been a lot of people focusing on this,” he said. The university administration, he said, “has been working on it but not enough has happened, not yet. But I also know it isn’t easy.”
Hudson said the race relations committee he leads will report to university faculty and the interim chancellor this week on recommendations it developed for pumping up cultural competence on the campus. Among them will be to form small groups each made up of people with opposing opinions on race relations, and allow them to talk it out.
Already, since the events of last November, “a lot of faculty are thinking about issues of race that previously they did not think about before,” said Ben Trachtenberg, Faculty Council chairman. “They are thinking a lot more about the perspectives of minority students.”
That thinking, he said, has led the College of Arts and Science to begin discussions about creating a diversity and inclusion curriculum with credit hours required for graduation. Since Arts and Science is the largest college on the campus, such a requirement would affect a large body of students.
Some students say that would go a long way to creating sustainable change.
“I like that idea,” said Sarah Frey, a senior journalism major and past director of student activities for the MU Student Association.
“Last year on this campus was a tumultuous time,” Frey said. “There was a lot of pain too. But it also was a time of education. There were a lot of students who didn’t understand what the black students were saying. I’m a conservative, Christian white girl from a small Missouri town, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.”
Other students agreed with Frey.
“What happened on this campus last year was a good first step,” said Nick Wyer, a sophomore industrial engineering student. “I see a lot more students now eager for change. But I see a lot of hill we still have to climb.”
Those hills, he said, will come with more protests and rallies. “I anticipate something more happening. I expect it,” he said.
Sean Earl, the student body president, agrees.
“I think that the perception is that a lot of the student activists that were bringing this issue to the forefront are gone now, that what happened last November was a one-time thing and now it’s done,” he said. “But there are students who are still willing to go out and protest, and that is a fact. It is up to the students and the faculty to keep this conversation going.”
Much of what the administration is doing now, Frey said, “is public relations. There are so many people involved in this issue now, some are sincere, but others it seems are just trying to make things look pretty so next year we will have more students.”
The Columbia campus announced last month that when the official enrollment count is done this fall, adminstrators expect it to show nearly 3,000 fewer students for the 2016-17 school year, with more than half of that decline coming out of the freshman class.
They attributed it in part to the national spectacle created by last year’s protests. The drop could cost MU about $30 million in revenue. Foley said that because of demographic shift that has narrowed the pool of high school graduates, the university is likely to see enrollment declines in the future.
The good news, Middleton said, is that the university seems to have mended relations with Missouri lawmakers who last year threatened to cut funding, saying the university mishandled the protests.
“I saw the folks in the legislature, for example being outraged over a number of things, but over the legislative session they came around,” Middleton said. “In fact, they gave us a 4 percent increase. That was a difficult time, but that time is over. I think we’ve got the full support of everyone who cares about higher education in this state.”
Trachtenberg, while “optimistic,” suggested the university not pat itself on the back just yet.
“It would be foolish for us to be bragging about what a wonderful job we are doing,” he said. “It’s much too soon to tell if we have the money and sustained focus to move the needle on this issue.”