Government & Politics

UMKC chancellor response to conservative speaker attack faces backlash in Missouri Legislature

Protester arrested during speaker’s anti-transgender talk at UMKC

Conservative commentator Michael Knowles inflamed students when he spoke at University of Missouri-Kansas City on April 11, 2019.
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Conservative commentator Michael Knowles inflamed students when he spoke at University of Missouri-Kansas City on April 11, 2019.

Missouri lawmakers, unhappy with the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s response to a student’s attack last week on a conservative speaker visiting campus, are looking to cut the school’s budget.

Despite multiple statements from Chancellor C. Mauli Agrawal affirming the importance of free speech on campus, legislators remain dissatisfied.

“I still don’t think he addressed (my concerns),” state Sen. David Sater, a Cassville Republican and Appropriations Committee member, said. “It was almost like he was making excuses.” He called for Agrawal’s resignation Monday night.

Michael Knowles, 29, who hosts a show at the conservative Daily Wire website, was 20 minutes into an anti-transgender speech entitled “Men Are not Women,” at Royall Hall Thursday night when audience members began to boo and some walked out, waving middle fingers. Then a person with a toy water gun attempted to approach Knowles and sprayed a liquid in his direction.

A student, Gerard G. Dabu, was tackled by UMKC police, arrested and later charged with disturbing the peace, assault on law enforcement, property damage and resisting arrest.

The liquid, originally thought to be bleach, was later found to be a mix of lavender oil and nontoxic household liquids, according to police. The color and scent of lavender have been adopted by the LGBTQ community as a symbol for transgender solidarity.

Agrawal put out a statement the next day. He called Knowles, who had been invited by the campus groups Young Americans for Freedom and UMKC College Republicans, “a speaker whose professed opinions do not align with our commitment to diversity and inclusion and our goal of providing a welcoming environment to all people, particularly to our LGBT community.”

He also acknowledged that the treatment of Knowles “crossed a line.” He affirmed the school’s commitment to free speech, saying, “UMKC must maintain a safe environment in which all points of view, even extreme ones, are allowed to be heard.”

The chancellor’s statement kindled a social media and cable firestorm. Knowles denounced the chancellor’s statement on the Fox News show “Tucker Carlson Tonight” the next day.

Carlson called Agrawal “the moron who runs that school.”

“This is a publicly funded university that takes tax dollars, our tax dollars and we should shut it down immediately,” Carlson said.

Missouri senators made their displeasure with Agrawal clear as soon as they hit the Senate floor following the weekend.

“I would like to get more explanation from the chancellor but as of right now, he can go,” Sater said Monday night from the floor.

Senators said they were concerned with what they believed to be rising tide of liberal intolerance on college campuses.

“This is an opportunity for the Senate to make a statement, to make a stand about the issue brought to us,” Sen. Gary Romine., R-Farmington, said on the Senate floor Monday night.

“Intolerance has taken on a different swing of the pendulum at this time.,” he said

State Sen. Bill Eigel, R-St. Charles, said the statement tried to “justify assault.”

“His salary is over $400,000 a year,” Eigel, another Senate Appropriations Committee member, said. “It will appear his statement is out of line with the University system and if that can’t be reconciled, maybe change does need to happen.”

A former professor, state Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, said the statement spoke to an “arrogance” found in academia “that is often overwhelming.”

State lawmakers have taken after educators before, brandishing their power of the purse in response to campus disorder. The result is usually much rhetoric and little in the way of budget reduction.

In 2015, after protests against racism at the University of Missouri in Columbia, the legislature denounced a professor, Melissa Click, who called for “muscle” to remove a photojournalist. Though lawmakers made moves to eliminate a state funding increase to the University of Missouri system and its Columbia campus, the two ultimately saw the state dollars.

State Sen. Jason Holsman, who district includes UMKC, called on lawmakers to give Agrawal time to clarify further and urged caution when it came to punitive budget cuts.

“The rest of the students do not deserve to be in the cross-hairs of an appropriations battle over words you find distasteful from the chancellor,” Holsman, D-Kansas City, said.

While senators met Monday,University of Missouri System President Dr. Mun Choi texted and emailed them the updated statement from Agrawal.

He said, in part:

“I want to state my unequivocal position that violence and attacks on individuals are unacceptable. I condemn the attack on our speaker by one of our students. That student was arrested and faces several criminal charges. In addition, we suspended the student and the student will not be allowed on campus during UMKC’s investigation, which could lead to a number of sanctions including expulsion.

“My original statement may have given an indication that UMKC does not support freedom of expression for all. I apologize if I’ve given that impression, for that was not my intention. It is not the university’s role to take sides, but to rise to the higher principle of promoting a respectful exchange of ideas for our students to form their own views and engage in critical thinking.”

The second statement’s effect wasn’t immediately clear.

State Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, one of Agrawal’s detractors, said he needed to “digest” what the chancellor said. His greater concern, he said, was about the state of speech on college campuses.

“All too many times, it seems like conservative speakers on college campuses are attacked for conservative values, not just in Missouri but across the country,” Hoskins said. “This has to stop.”

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