The response by University of Missouri leaders to racial tension that flared up on campus this week was swift and public, but not enough, some students say.
“I was very impressed with how quick the university administration identified the students, how quick they were to acknowledge publicly that a racist act had occurred and to say it wasn’t going to be tolerated,” said Sean Earl, student body president on the Columbia campus.
“The highlight of this new administration is they have been very active, actively listening and providing insight,” Earl said. But, he added, students want more — they want people held accountable for racist behavior.
“There is no disciplinary action attached to racist speech, hate speech; instead it just falls under harassment,” Earl said. “If this university is going to say that discrimination and racist speech is not going to be tolerated, then there needs to be consequence attached to that.”
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Earl made the comments during an interview Thursday afternoon, one day after university officials and the Delta Upsilon International Fraternity’s national organization suspended the fraternity’s MU chapter for alleged involvement in a racially charged incident late Tuesday outside the Delta Upsilon house.
Racial tensions erupted when fraternity members were accused of shouting racial slurs out of windows at black students who were talking with police on the sidewalk outside the fraternity house.
According to a university police report released Thursday afternoon, the incident happened just before midnight. Two black female members of MU’s Legion of Black Collegians were the target of a racial expletive that allegedly came from a group of white students who campus police said were “very intoxicated.”
The five-page police report said that while police questioned both groups in front of the Delta Upsilon fraternity house, a crowd gathered on the sidewalk and officers heard racially charged comments being made by both black and white students. Black students reported hearing slurs coming from the windows of the Delta Upsilon house.
On Wednesday, the fraternity was suspended pending the university investigation, meaning it’s not allowed to use any university-owned facilities or participate in any MU activities, such as homecoming.
The university in a statement said its Office of Student Conduct and the Office of Civil Rights & Title IX “are taking appropriate action.” But the university declined to elaborate, citing laws that protect student identities.
Interim Chancellor Hank Foley, in a statement Wednesday, said he was “outraged and saddened” to hear about the incident. “We have zero tolerance for actions like this.”
MU’s code of conduct deals with discrimination in employment and opportunity but does not mention racial hate speech. Under harassment, the code says: “Harassment in violation of the University’s anti-discrimination policies, is unwelcome verbal or physical conduct.”
Still, compared with what students called “inaction” by MU leaders last year after several black students, including the student body president at the time, reported being called the N-word on campus, “acknowledgment of racist acts on campus is a step in the right direction,” said Jalyn Henderson, a journalism major.
“But a lot of people are still very angry to see these issues still happening,” Henderson said. “It is going to be a very long and hard road to end racism on this campus.”
Racially charged protests last November put MU in the national spotlight. They led to a student hunger strike, a threatened boycott by Mizzou football players and two top leaders being forced to resign.
“After the events last fall, it seemed the students had made so much progress,” said Sarah Frey, a member of student government activities event staff. “And here we are, facing another incident of blatant racism.”
Frey attended a town hall meeting hosted Wednesday by the Legion of Black Collegians at the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center to discuss the Tuesday incident. She was disappointed that “for every one white person, there were two dozen black people. How can we heal this? How can we educate, when so many are unwilling to listen?” she said.
Journalism professor Berkley Hudson chairs the Faculty Council’s race relations committee and said he, too, is frustrated that some faculty and students remain reluctant to embrace efforts to improve race relations on campus.
Earlier this month, university leaders laid out plans for stepping up diversity, equity and inclusion on the campus, including spending $4.2 million in initiatives and recruiting minority faculty. Mandatory race relations training for new freshmen is part of the plan.
“Is the university any better positioned now to respond, yes, I think so,” Hudson said. “In some ways, the campus is very different from 12 months ago in terms of leadership and in terms of the lessons that I think many people here have learned.”
But, Hudson said, “the resistance remains in terms of our being willing collectively and individually to deeply listen to one another. That resistance can be seen from the board of curators on down to throughout the Mizzou campus.”
Still, Interim University System President Mike Middleton said in a statement Thursday that he has “the utmost faith ... and complete confidence” in Foley’s leadership of MU.
And Stephanie Shonekan, director of Black Studies at MU, has confidence in MU leadership, too.
“I think that Kevin McDonald (the university’s chief diversity officer) and his division engaged with the situation more immediately than what happened last year. And that is positive,” Shonekan said. “Is it perfect? Probably not. But at least there is action. At least there is movement this time.”