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How Ferguson influenced the student uprising at Mizzou

November 9, 2015 at 6:45 PM EST
The president of the University of Missouri has stepped down amid increasing student and faculty protests. Tim Wolfe was accused of ignoring months of complaints over racial slurs, fueling a demonstration at homecoming, a hunger strike and a boycott by several football players. Gwen Ifill talks to professor Scott Brooks and Brenda Smith-Lezama of the University of Missouri Students Association.
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GWEN IFILL: It’s been an eventful day in Columbia, Missouri, where the university has been the center of national attention over racial tensions on campus.

At the heart of the protest was a hunger strike that resonated across the campus and across the state.

TIM WOLFE, Former President, University of Missouri: I am resigning as president of the University of Missouri system.

GWEN IFILL: The announcement from Tim Wolfe came right after the university system’s governing body opened a special meeting.

TIM WOLFE: This is not, I repeat, not the way change should come about. Change comes from listening, learning, caring and conversation. Unfortunately, this has not happened, and that is why I stand before you today. And I take full responsibility for this frustration, and I take full responsibility for the inaction that has occurred.

GWEN IFILL: Wolfe’s resignation followed months of complaints over racial slurs on the overwhelmingly white campus at Columbia, including a swastika drawn on a dormitory wall with human feces. The student government president was one of the targets.

PAYTON HEAD, President, Missouri Students Association: What happens here is that they have the opportunity to create an environment that is inclusive, that you can put in place a zero tolerance policy for acts of bias and discrimination on this campus.

GWEN IFILL: As protests grew, Wolfe’s car was blocked during a homecoming parade, black graduate student Jonathan Butler began a hunger strike, protesting the slurs and the overall racial climate at the state university.

The tipping point arrived this weekend, when at least 30 black football players announced they would boycott team activities until Wolfe was removed.

Head coach Gary Pinkel endorsed the protest, posting a photo of the team locking arms, saying, “We are united.” By today, faculty members were pledging to join in.

The season of academic discontent is not limited to Missouri. At Yale, students and administrators have also been thrust into campus upheaval, as a memo over appropriate Halloween costumes triggered longstanding tensions about race and free speech.

In Columbia, Tim Wolfe’s resignation exposed raw nerves about the lack of diversity among students and faculty, while also showcasing the muscle of the school’s athletic department.

As students celebrated, Jonathan Butler declared his hunger strike over.

JONATHAN BUTLER, University of Missouri Graduate Student: It should not have taken this much. And it is disgusting and vile that we find ourselves in the place that we do.

GWEN IFILL: Also, the football players announced they are returning to practice tomorrow.

Earlier this evening, before the chancellor also resigned, I spoke to Brenda Smith-Lezama, the vice president of the student body at the university of Missouri, and Scott Brooks, an associate professor of sociology.

Brenda Smith-Lezama, you have been in the middle of this and you know what the conversations have been. How much relief is there tonight or how much concern is there still in the wake of this protest?

BRENDA SMITH-LEZAMA, Vice President, Missouri Students Association: Well, the relief is unsurmountable.

But, at the same time, it’s just a first step. And that’s the one thing that I think all students involved in this movement want to reiterate. This is not the endgame. So, we need to think about how we’re going to move forward and proceed with the administration, as well as involving students.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Brooks, is this a new issue that we’re hearing so much about now or is it an old one that’s been given new life?

SCOTT BROOKS, Associate Professor, University of Missouri: No, it’s definitely an old one that has been given new life.

You can go back to 1969 with the Legion of Black Collegians and them giving a list of demands of their concerns at that time. And so whether we’re talking about 1969 here at the University of Missouri or whether we’re talking about other campuses, I think that it’s a fairly common story for black students, even black faculty staff, that they are operating on — at a university and they have this kind of mixed feeling.

You know, it’s a place where they’re coming to get the best that they can from the university. They are looking and hoping and expecting that this is the time of their lives, and yet they are stuck — struck with a harsh reality, that they’re not treated often as equal citizens, as equal students, and that’s across the levels, faculty, staff and students.

So this is not a new story.

GWEN IFILL: Brenda Smith-Lezama, tell me how a little bit what — how this blew up, how this became such a big issue, and whether this has been your personal experience, the stories that we’re now hearing coming out of campus about the experiences of black students not only now, but for some time now.

BRENDA SMITH-LEZAMA: Well, of course.

Well, I think that, for most students, there has been a shift post-Ferguson and going back to that year, year-and-a-half period, the activism on campus has been at an all-time high. I think that, for the first time, movements were being led in a very systematic and very intentional manner.

So, coming from the student body, I think that there is a lot of change that we all see that needs to be made, and this is the first time that we have all been able to rally around one cause, and that is making them do better.

GWEN IFILL: So, this is a post-Ferguson effect, as it were?

BRENDA SMITH-LEZAMA: Absolutely. Absolutely.

I think that, at least for me, I will say that, prior to Ferguson and all the events that followed, there was obviously racial issues and there was a lot of issues of systematic oppression with itself. However, after Ferguson was — one, we were met with a lot of silence from our administration. And I think what is most frustrating, is that when students were crying out for help, our administration left us stranded.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you this. And then I want to ask Professor Brooks as well.

What difference will it make that president Wolfe is gone, if this is a question and a problem that’s predated even his arrival on campus in 2012?

BRENDA SMITH-LEZAMA: Removing Tim Wolfe is by no means going to solve the system that has built for so many years here at the University of Missouri.

However, I think that specifically after Ferguson, Tim Wolfe did serve as kind of the icon of the system that has failed us. And one of the biggest things that students have brought up with concern is the fact that we need to have educators in those positions, people who are willing to make that change, people who are willing to listen to students, rather than meet us with silence and not validate our concerns and our struggles.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Brooks, what about that? What difference will it make if the president of the university is now gone?

SCOTT BROOKS: Well, I think that Brenda has articulated it very well.

This is simply a step in the right direction. The difference is not about removing Tim Wolfe. The difference is going to be seen in what happens next. And that’s really what we’re encouraged to pay attention to.

You know, what we’re excited about is, how can we move forward, now that we know that there is at least one less person that we feel has been an obstacle? This is the way that students feel. And this is also a way that faculty, staff are coming together. We’re coming together under the guise of, you know, what are — what changes can we make now that we have at least an opportunity for shared government?

GWEN IFILL: You know, I want to go to what happens next, but allow me for — going back for a moment, would this have reached the head it did, starting with you, Professor Brooks, if there had not been the involvement of the student athletes, of the football team? Was that the tipping point?

SCOTT BROOKS: Right.

Well, I think that you have to look at the student athlete and their student side. So, if the student athlete could not connect with this larger student movement, the student athlete wouldn’t necessarily come forward.

I agree that there is no doubt the importance of sport is — you know, we know how important sport has become, particularly at the university. We call athletics the front porch of the university, talk about the collegiate arms race, the sports industrial complex. There was $1 million that the university could incur in terms of fines if the student athlete didn’t perform, if the football players did not go out onto the field.

And so there is no doubt that that is an important consideration for each and every university that has a big football — a big-time football team. So, that’s not simply a Missouri issue. That’s a national issue. And student athletes have had this power and they have been trying to exercise this in different ways for the last couple of years, as we have seen student athletes organizing around amateurship vs. being able to gain some stipends.

So this is a growing national piece as well. The revolt of the athlete has never gone too far beneath the surface. It did take a moment like this and the courage of our concerned students to step forward to help to galvanize and give student athletes even a voice and a platform and strength to move forward.

GWEN IFILL: And, Brenda Smith-Lezama, so you have had today’s victory. You admit — you concede that it’s a partial victory. So what does happen next?

BRENDA SMITH-LEZAMA: Well, honestly, I’m a student. I am not an administrator. I am not the one who is paid and tasked with coming up with these answers.

And that’s the one thing that has been so frustrating over the past year-and-a-half, is that administrators have often held back and asked us to come up with the solutions. I can’t go to school full-time, work and then on top of that do an administrator’s job as well. And that’s what’s so crucial.

But I will say is that this, if nothing else, really put our administrators on high alert to know that University of Missouri students will not stand idly by and let our university fall to pieces.

GWEN IFILL: Brenda Smith-Lezama, vice president of the student body at University of Missouri, and Professor Scott Brooks, thank you both very much.

SCOTT BROOKS: Thank you.

BRENDA SMITH-LEZAMA: Thank you for having us.

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