Why would someone from Milwaukee, Wisconsin come all the way down to Missouri for college? The easy answer is for the School of Journalism at Mizzou. But that’s oversimplifying it: I came to Mizzou because of the protests.
The fall of 2015 was a critical time for Columbia, Missouri. Protests ignited across the Mizzou campus, challenging racism and the administration’s unwillingness to confront it. Led by student group Concerned Student 1950, the movement included a hunger strike by student Jonathan Butler and a football team boycott. Eventually the protesters had some of their demands met: President Tim Wolfe resigned, leaving an interim president to start the healing process.
I was almost 500 miles away, aware of the protests only through Twitter, a high school senior with a million other things on my mind. I never expected the events of that fall to influence me in the way they did.
Months later, my family embarked on the seven-and-a-half-hour drive to Columbia for a summer orientation at Mizzou. Meeting Dr. Berkley Hudson, chairman of the Race Relations Committee that formed after 2015’s protest, was a must on our to-do list. We went to lunch on our second day at Mizzou, and our conversation started essentially how I imagined, with conversation about his research and my family.
Then Dr. Hudson asked me if the protests had dissuaded me at all from coming to Mizzou.
“I didn’t want to run away. Running away from controversy doesn’t do anything,” I replied. “If everyone leaves a place that has issues, it’s never going to get better.” I surprised myself. But once I started my first semester, I found out that I wasn’t alone.
The college campus is an incubator for political engagement and protest. Colleges serve as an early indicator of broader social changes, from the Civil Rights era to Berkley’s cancellation of Milo Yiannopoulos’ speech following student backlash.
Mizzou was a reminder of the power that protests on college campuses have to spark broader conversation. When I decided to go to Mizzou I didn’t see a school slinging racist insults across a quad. I saw a deeper-rooted problem, built on a foundation of racially motivated killings, Black Lives Matter, and MU4MikeBrown. Now, with college protest again in the national spotlight, the University of Wisconsin has recently instituted a rule that suspends students who interrupt others’ right to freedom of speech and expression—including walking out on or disrupting speakers.
Which begs the question of how students are to interact with broader, world issues within the microcosm of college—and whether it is better to avoid these sources of controversy, or embrace them.
This summer, a New York Times article argued not only that the university itself was suffering miserably as a result of the 2015 protests, but that prospective students of all races were turning away. The writer, Anemona Hartocollis, cited the example of a white student from St. Louis who was “afraid of being stereotyped as a bigot” if he attended Mizzou. The article villainized the university without looking at the people who were working to make it better. It didn’t consider Mizzou’s impressive retention rate or programs like the newly implemented Race Relations Committee that were being implemented on campus.
The culture of on-campus protest is indicative of the position of students as intellectuals at the forefront of social change. The students engaged in these protests are the coming political actors. It only makes sense that they would initiate broader change first within the microcosm of universities. To me, that isn’t a deterrent.
Ian Teoh, a second-year Mizzou journalism student from Singapore, applied to attend Mizzou after the protests because he felt the benefits outweighed any potential issues. He’d read the New York Times article, too, but thought it “overlooked” some things, including rising college costs. He thinks the school handled the protest and controversy “as best as they could.”
“They’ve taken the rights steps,” he says, citing a diversity education program, increased platforms for open dialogue, and the hiring of new administrators.
Bailey Conard, a fourth-year English and Journalism major, agreed.
“Shouldn’t more people want to go to Mizzou because it’s in the news and it’s relevant?” Conard said. “Don’t they want to be a part of what’s happening here?”
Conard was disappointed by the way Mizzou has been covered, suggesting it only helps to spread more hate and hinder conversation. Others felt a sense of responsibility.
Nick Wyer, a St. Louis native and textile and apparel management major, knows what it means to be a minority on Mizzou’s campus—and it inspired him to stay.
“Black Mizzou is a thing because there’s so little of us,” he says. Wyer, who was a freshman in the fall of 2015, claimed a sense of duty to his school. “I have to do my best to combat [racism] and prevent it and work to correct other people.”
Nothing is accomplished by running away from conflict. If we avoid the sticky situations and controversial topics, conditions will never improve. I recognize that it’s easier for me to say this as a middle-class white woman. I can speak out against racism without significant fear of backlash. But I wanted to be a part of the generation of Mizzou students who acknowledged the ugly racial history of the university (and the country) and fight to make it better.
Obviously, I couldn’t arrive on campus one day and rebuild it all from the ground up. This process takes time. We might have wanted things to change overnight, but they didn’t. We went to class the next day. And the next. And the next. But that’s the point.
This grows more complicated since the issuing of the NAACP travel advisory for the state of Missouri. Sometimes it can appear as though Mizzou’s efforts—the Race Relations Committee, the campus climate survey, the hiring of new staff and faculty—have done little to alter the way things are. But the culture of protest on college campuses is evolving. And it hasn’t been easy; the 2016 elections made it harder.
Recently I spoke to Tijana Sagorac Gruichich, a University of Wisconsin-Madison sophomore studying pre-med and Spanish about the school’s new prohibitive rules around campus demonstration. She understands where the school is coming from, but to her “it seems like the rule is more aimed at keeping students who aren’t usually speaking in front of large groups quiet, thus contradicting the very principle, [free speech] they are basing the rule on.”
“It discourages students to protest and stand up for what they believe in,” she adds.
Campus protest isn’t about limiting another’s right to free speech. It’s about what values a university and its students hold and endorse. It’s about standing up for those values. Rules like those instituted at the University of Wisconsin, backlash like that which Berkley experienced, and dropping enrollment at watershed universities are all troubling in this respect. But it is no surprise that institutions are reacting strongly to these provocative movements. What matters then is the students who are responsible for perpetuating a culture of campus protest continue to speak out against social injustice.
I chose the University of Missouri for a reason. That reason wasn’t acclaim or location or cost or athletics. I chose Mizzou because of the protests. I chose Mizzou because at my school, speaking out for social change is an active responsibility, not a passive judgment.
Beckie is a feminist journalist-in-training and an avid follower of politics, social media trends, and Stranger Things. Follow her on Twitter @beckiejake.