The Mizzou Effect: Some Colleges Struggle to Recover from Protests Sparked by Racial Tensions

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A 35 percent decrease in freshman enrollment over the span of two years. Millions of dollars in lost revenue. Hundreds of job cuts. And a $1.3 million public relations expenditure to repair a tarnished image. 

These figures represent the damage suffered by the University of Missouri (MU) — commonly referred to as “Mizzou” — since fall 2015, when frustrations over the administration’s weak response to racist incidents on campus sparked weeks of student protests, eventually leading to the resignations of the university’s chancellor and the president of the University of Missouri system. 

[Above: Jabar Shumate chats with students in the Office of University Community on OU’s campus in Norman, Okla.]

The losses MU sustained, including a 40 percent reduction in African American student enrollment between 2015 and 2016 alone, have been so staggering that some have begun to refer to the impact caused by such incidents as the “Mizzou Effect.” And in the nearly three years since the protests at MU, students across the country have staged similar demonstrations in response to institutional leaders who seem indifferent to the concerns and well-being of marginalized students. 

In May 2017, Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., became one of the most notable examples of this after racial tensions there led to a chaotic series of student protests, campus shutdowns, and threats of violence from far-right groups. By the fall, freshman enrollment at the school of nearly 4,000 students was down approximately 5 percent, resulting in $2.1 million in budget cuts and a hiring freeze. And Evergreen is still feeling the effects: For fall 2018, it is expecting a 17 to 20 percent decrease in first-year enrollment and $5.9 million in budget cuts, according to a March 2018 memo from the president to the board of trustees. Evergreen State declined to comment for this story. 

“Institutions should be responding to these events by looking at them within a broader historical perspective,” says Uma Jayakumar, PhD, an associate professor at the University of California, Riverside Graduate School of Education. She studies the effects of institutional racism on students of color. “It’s not about responding to random student whims. The conditions and harm to students of color that these students are protesting is backed by decades of research,” she adds. 

A student participates in a protest on MU’s campus in Columbia, Mo., on Nov. 11, 2015. (photo by Mark Schierbecker)
A student participates in a protest on MU’s campus in Columbia, Mo., on Nov. 11, 2015. (photo by Mark Schierbecker)

Too often, Jayakumar explains, college and university leaders respond to racist events as isolated incidents rather than evidence of the continuous denigration of people of color at predominantly white institutions. When such events occur and leadership responds with anything less than explicit action, this demonstrates to the campus community that underrepresented students’ experiences are not valued. She believes this is why colleges where students have to protest to get the administration’s attention are seeing declining enrollments. 

It was this lack of recognition from leadership that motivated Danielle Walker, currently a PhD candidate in education and human relations at the University of Colorado Denver, to create the #RacismLivesHere campaign when she was a graduate student at MU in fall 2015. She says it was common for black students such as herself to be harassed with racial slurs while walking across campus. 

“It’s just a common shared experience that many black students can attest to — not all of them, but many,” says Walker. While students of color and other marginalized groups had strong advocates through the school’s cultural affinity spaces, such as the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center, university leadership did not seem receptive to their concerns, she says. “The directors and coordinators [of these centers] were always pleading the cases of students, but [their concerns] continued to fall on deaf ears [with] administrators and those who actually had legitimate forms of power.” 

“If [an incident] did lead to any sort of action, it was typically a town hall or listening session where it was very degrading to have to be in front of a panel of mostly white leaders to plead with them to listen to all of the painful incidents you’ve experienced on campus as a black person,” she adds. 

In September 2015, when a Facebook post written by Peyton Head — an African American senior and president of the MU Student Body Association — described at length the experience of a racial slur being directed at him on campus, in addition to other incidents of harassment due to his race and sexuality, Walker assumed the university might finally take action. Head’s post quickly went viral, gaining thousands of “likes” and national press coverage. Within days, the university’s then-chancellor R. Bowen Loftin issued a brief statement saying, “One bias incident on campus is too many. … We support free speech in the context of learning, spirited inquiry, and intellectual discussion, but acts of bias and discrimination will not be tolerated at Mizzou.”

For Walker and many others, the lack of action accompanying Loftin’s words indicated that MU’s administration would once again fail to address the campus climate. In response, she organized the #RacismLivesHere campaign, which included rallies and testimonies from students of color and helped spark a series of protests attended by students and faculty that lasted over two months. It wasn’t until MU’s Division I football team threatened to strike — which would have cost the school $1 million in fines — that the president of the university system, Tim Wolfe, gave in to protesters’ demand for his resignation. Shortly thereafter, Loftin also ceded to demands and resigned.  

To many, including Walker, the events of that fall seemed overwhelmingly dismissive and an affront to the rights of African Americans on college campuses. 

“I have a lot of fond memories of Mizzou, but there are too many negative experiences that outweigh the positive ones,” says Walker, who was honored with the prestigious Chairman’s Award by the NAACP for launching the #RacismLivesHere campaign. She says she has not stayed up to date on what progress, if any, the university has made since she graduated in spring 2016 but is aware that MU had pledged to hire more faculty of color. “My entire time there I only had three black professors, so thinking about the impact something like that has on students of color and especially retention rates, I think that is a good start,” Walker says. 

Kevin McDonald reads suggestions from members of the MU community for improving the campus climate. 
Kevin McDonald reads suggestions from members of the MU community for improving the campus climate.

One action undertaken by the university in the wake of the protests was the hiring in 2016 of Kevin McDonald, JD, EdD, as the chief diversity officer for the University of Missouri System and vice chancellor for inclusion, diversity, and equity at MU. A veteran in the field of diversity and inclusion in higher education, McDonald says his first task at MU was to listen to the concerns, experiences, and recommendations for change from students, faculty, staff, and the broader community in order to identify “opportunities to bridge gaps and create greater cohesion, understanding, and healing.” 

Kevin McDonald
Kevin McDonald

Following this move, he created an action plan based on input from these stakeholders, who he wanted to ensure were collaborative partners rather than simply bystanders or recipients of the transformative change that MU’s board of curators and other leaders recognized as necessary. The plan included building upon the strengths of the school’s cultural affinity centers and organizations as well as the “dedicated faculty, staff, and students who had given their own blood, sweat, and tears to create a community and sense of belonging” through these groups, says McDonald. 

Other steps taken on the university’s “inclusive excellence journey,” as McDonald refers to it, involved conducting a campus climate survey, creating diversity awareness programming, and collaborating with leaders in the local community.

“At any institution there’s an opportunity to reflect on what you have and what building blocks are there to support [diversity and inclusion] work,” says McDonald. “You have to ask if they are being supported to their fullest to help enhance the campus community in ways that [it can] see and not just in ways that the leadership sees.” 

While MU concedes that the protests had an impact on enrollment, state budget cuts helped feed the decline. University officials have hope for the future, however, as the state’s new governor — who took office in June — has indicated his intention to reverse some of the cuts in state funding made by his predecessor. Additionally, the university announced in May that it expects freshman enrollment to rise by as much as 14 percent over last year, which would mean an incoming class of nearly 5,000 in fall 2018. 

Some attribute these changes to the fact that MU’s extensive efforts to improve its tarnished image — for example, instituting a pipeline program for African American male students in Missouri’s metropolitan high schools — are finally working. This does not mean, however, that the university has fully recovered from the events of fall 2015, when freshman enrollment was 6,200. Officials have set a goal to reach that number again by fall 2023.

For the time being, MU is taking extreme measures to aid in its recovery. In June, the administration announced $35 million in budget cuts that will result in the consolidation of 12 graduate programs into a single college and the elimination of nearly 200 jobs — most of which, according to the university, were unfilled positions.

Institutions that have taken immediate action in the face of racist incidents seem to have fared better. In March 2015, when a video surfaced of members of a fraternity at the University of Oklahoma (OU) chanting racial slurs and joking about lynching black men, university leadership responded swiftly and decisively. Within 24 hours of the video’s being leaked online, then-president David Boren released a statement personally condemning the students and asserting a zero-tolerance policy for such sentiments. He also permanently banned the fraternity and gave its members less than one day to vacate their on-campus house. Today, the structure is home to resource offices for veterans and underrepresented students. 

Jabar Shumate
Jabar Shumate

Following the incident, OU also hired Jabar Shumate, an OU alumnus and former state legislator, as vice president for the university community — essentially making him the university’s first chief diversity officer. Shumate credits Boren’s leadership with empowering the university to transform a painful event into an opportunity to strengthen OU’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. 

“If you are really committed to transformational work and change, … then the commitment has to be immediate. You can’t pause when you have an incident [like the fraternity video] or one that disrupts the campus environment,” says Shumate. 

Prior to the release of the fraternity video, Boren had begun meeting with the student group Unheard, which advocates for the rights of African Americans on campus. Thanks to this group and the support of the university community, OU has been able to invest considerably in programs and initiatives that have increased recruitment of and support for underrepresented students. 

In spring 2015, Boren promised that OU would set the national standard for how schools should react to instances of bigotry and hatred, and Shumate believes it has succeeded in doing so. He also thinks incidents such as the one at OU and the protests at MU have prompted other institutions to be more proactive in their support for minority students. In the 2015-2016 academic year, for example, 96 U.S. colleges and universities created chief diversity officer positions. 

Jayakumar sees such efforts as progress toward institutions protecting the right of marginalized students to learn in a safe environment. “It’s really complicated for institutions to strip themselves of everything [biased] and turn into completely diverse and inclusive spaces,” she says. “While these transitions happen, there has to be an acknowledgement that these problems are real and are continuing to negatively affect students.”

Walker says she hopes that colleges that have gone through similar events will consider the importance of investing in transformative change rather than just view them as public relations crises. “There has always been a history at Mizzou and many other institutions of student uprisings,” she says, “and it will happen again unless the institution becomes committed to the safety and well-being of its most vulnerable students.”

Mariah Bohanon is the associate editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. The University of Oklahoma is a 2017 Diversity Champion and a 2016-2017 HEED Award recipient. This article ran in our July/August 2018 issue.