Guest Commentary

Guest commentary: What The New York Times got wrong about MU and its 2015 protests

This week The New York Times published a story by reporter Anemona Hartocollis that painted an unreasonably and inaccurately bleak image of our proud university. Despite having spoken both with myself and the president of the Mizzou student lobbying group, the Associated Students of the University of Missouri, Hartocollis included nothing from either interview in her final story. It is reasonable to assume that the exclusion of these interviews — and who knows how many others — seems to have been driven by the fact that they did not fit into the more simplistic, yet flawed picture that she wished to paint. In her portrayal, the protests have caused an entirely negative impact on our university, and are the sole driver of down enrollment. However, this simply is not true.

The reality of Mizzou’s current state of affairs is far more complex than Hartocollis’ story would suggest. I will not deny that the events of 2015 have played a sizeable role in the decreased enrollment that our university faces today, but we cannot acknowledge this fact without also acknowledging facts such as decreased population sizes among the age group currently going into college. Moreover, there is a major factor to consider in increased SEC recruitment in traditionally Mizzou-dominated out of state markets such as Illinois.

Adding to all of this, the Missouri General Assembly voted in one of the largest non-recession budget cuts to higher education in state history, resulting in over 400 lost staff and faculty positions and a substantial negative impact on our ability to recruit and hire. It is only once considering all of these complex aspects that one begins to have a more complete picture of the various factors all playing a role in today’s enrollment numbers.

The New York Times was correct, however, in pointing out that the events which took place on campus in the fall of 2015 appeared far more dramatic off campus than on. This can be statically shown through the fact that the enrollment drop has come from new students, rather than students transferring away. In fact, in the time since the events of 2015, Mizzou has experienced the third highest retention rate in its history. In other words, those who were at Mizzou during the protests of 2015 were not driven away by what they experienced. Despite misleading representations by the national media in 2015, the protests of that semester did not shut down campus. Classes went on as scheduled and the university’s mission to educate its students was uninterrupted.

That is not to diminish the protests, but rather to point out that Mizzou managed to balance expression of students’ unalienable First Amendment rights and still provide an educational experience that was unimpeded. The protests were entirely peaceful and nonviolent, yet rather than celebrating this example of exactly the kind of civic expression our Founding Fathers had envisioned, this university has been repeatedly punished for it by the national press and our own state legislature.

Despite all of this, tremendous progress has been made at our university since the events of 2015. Our administration created the position of vice chancellor for inclusion, diversity and equity, whose office has made a series of recommendations taken up by the university to address racial disparities in faculty and staff numbers, in addition to creating a mandatory diversity training for all at Mizzou, including incoming students. We have welcomed in a new system president and university chancellor, both of whom are dedicated to putting students first and ensuring that Mizzou offers the best educational experience possible to all who attend.

But most importantly, 2015 fundamentally changed the way administrators at our university view students. Today more than ever, students at Mizzou are viewed as stakeholders whose opinions and voices matter. One of the first things our new system president and university chancellor did upon taking office was meet with student leaders to hear their input on the pressing matters facing our university. The result has been record turnout in student government elections, and student engagement on campus is at an all-time high. More than ever before, students are playing an active role here at Mizzou, and our university is only the better for it. This is the true impact of 2015, and this is what people across the nation and here in Missouri should look at with pride.

Unfortunately, the article published in The New York Times this week would appear to be an example of a journalist who had already decided exactly what she was going to say before ever speaking to anyone actually here on campus. But Mizzou knows better.

This is not a university on the decline. We are facing some challenging times, and it does us no good to deny it. We have much more work to do, but there are wonderful things happening on our campus, and more to come. We live in the Show-Me State, and we need to do a better job of showing off all that our university has to offer. The quality of instruction at Mizzou and integrity of our student body continue to be the envy of schools across the nation.

We are the flagship university of the incredible state of Missouri, with groundbreaking research and exceptional academic achievements occurring each and every day right here in Columbia. This is a university to be proud of, and I for one cannot wait to see what the future holds for Mizzou.

Nathan Willett is president of the Missouri Students Association, the undergraduate student government for the University of Missouri.

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