The Mizzou moment: Student activism beyond Missouri

NARCH EUO

Protest at Ithaca College

When activists see a tactic that seems to be producing results, they’ll imitate it. Innovation spreads ideas that seem to work. The ousting of University of Missouri Timothy Wolfe signaled student activists across the country about new possibilities. We’ve seen a run of discussions of race, protests, hunger strikes, and targeting administrators in the last few days, and I don’t think anyone knows just what happens next.

In all cases, neither the grievances nor the activism is new. But there is more energy and far more attention in the wake of Mizzou.

At Ithaca College, POC at IC (People of Color at Ithaca College) has called for President Tom Rochon’s*  resignation. The students are angry about the racial climate on campus, including the small number of Black and Latino faculty, but they cite many other grievances, often tied to his management style (he doesn’t consult, they say), the school’s ties to business interests, and budget priorities. A large group of faculty has endorsed the call for a no confidence vote, amplifying those concerns and adding their own (read the “open letter.“) The Trustees have endorsed Rochon, who has named a new administrator charged with diversity issues, and announced curricular and training reforms. The students (and faculty) aren’t close to backing down.

former Dean Mary Spellman at Claremont-McKenna College

At Claremont-McKenna College, Dean of Students Mary Spellman resigned her position yesterday, responding to student protests and hunger strikes calling for her ouster. The straw that stirred this drink was an unfortunately phrased email Dean Spellman sent to a student, offering to talk, and pledging her commitment to help students who don’t fit the “CMC mold.”

But the students had long-brewing grievances about the racial climate on campus, noting insensitive and offensive comments from classmates, as well as vandalism of the offices of minority student organizations. Students complained about the lack of alternative perspectives in some of their courses and about hurtful comments from professors. Before Mizzou, the activists had already provoked the resignation of their Junior Class president. The students asked for a space to organize and broader attention to their concerns. President Hiram Chodosh announced new administrative positions to address issues of diversity. Expect the new Dean of Students to vet emails more carefully; maybe proofing the correspondence will be a new administrative job.

Amherst College protest

Meanwhile, at Amherst College the Mizzou fallout intensified a campaign not only against an administrator, but also targeting the school’s mascot, Lord Jeff. He’s a stupid mascot, and a ready target. (Lord Jeffrey Amherst was known for promoting the distribution of blankets from small pox patients to Indians.) Students have demanded that President Biddy Martin denounce Lord Jeff by 5:00 tonight, and purge his image from the campus and all associated paraphernalia. Or else?

There are 10 other demands, starting with a call for apologies from the president and the Chair of the Board of Trustees to

students, alumni and former students, faculty, administration and staff who have been victims of several injustices including but not limited to our institutional legacy of white supremacy, colonialism, anti-black racism, anti-Latinx racism, anti-Native American racism, anti-Native/ indigenous racism, anti-Asian racism, anti-Middle Eastern racism, heterosexism, cis-sexism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, ableism, mental health stigma, and classism. Also include that marginalized communities and their allies should feel safe at Amherst College.

Meanwhile, here at the University of California, Irvine, two groups of students seized the moment to protest high tuition–and tuition altogether. Attending the University of California was once just about free, and now students commonly go deep into debt to finance an undergraduate degree. (I’d add, many many students work many many hours while in school, seeking to minimize that debt; they work enough to make getting through school and learning something much more difficult.) The Black Student Union used the Mizzou moment to stage a protest reiterating its demands for more academic and psychological support on campus, and calling for a zero-tolerance policy for racism.

The point: the apparent success of the student movement at the University of Missouri inspired campus-based activists who shared similar concerns to seize the moment, adding local issues, targets, and approaches. (Thankfully, hunger strikes are far from universal.) And college students have plenty of reasons to feel aggrieved, although replacing a campus leader and creating new administrative positions can’t come close to addressing most of those complaints.

Indeed, the proliferation of administrative positions is one of the factors driving high tuition. (But faltering state support is far more significant.)

There will be plenty of discussion about the justice and wisdom of each of these demands, about the obstacles students from underrepresented minorities face on college campuses, and the difficulties universities have in navigating academic, social, and financial pressures.

Right now, we can thank the student protesters for raising those questions.

*Full disclosure: Tom Rochon and I edited a book together a long time ago. Although we haven’t stayed in touch, I think of him as a great scholar (irony alert: of social movements), a decent man, and a friend.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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