The ivory tower doesn't exist: Mizzou’s boycott victory can’t be dismissed as just another "campus p.c. culture” controversy

The protest that pushed U. of Missouri's president into quitting is bigger than microaggressions and safe spaces

Published November 10, 2015 12:00AM (EST)

  (AP/Jeff Roberson)
(AP/Jeff Roberson)

This past weekend at the University of Missouri-Columbia, the black team members of the football team announced a boycott, declaring they would not participate in any football-related activities until the president of their university resigned. At Yale University in New Haven, angry students have been demanding that two administrators resign over "offensive" recommendations they made regarding Halloween costumes. Yale is a private university routinely listed as one of the top 10 institutions of higher education in the U.S., whereas the University of Missouri-Columbia is a public school without the elitist status of the Ivy League. On the face of it, these institutions could not be more different, yet they stand on opposite ends of a lengthy fault line threatening to bring about the collapse of a cherished illusion--the illusion that the life of the mind somehow exists independently of the race, gender and economic class of the bodies carting the brains around.

For a while now, critics have been pointing out the political perversion of institutions of higher education to serve economic ends. It is important to stipulate that the "ivory tower" was always a fiction, insofar as universities have never been above the fray but have always been shaped by social and political forces. In its Utopian incarnation, the university is a universe in microcosm, representing all things at all times as part of an encyclopedic objective. Universe+city = university. In practice, the university was always less cosmos than city, but lately--for the past century or so--it has begun to resemble a carefully curated gated community. Inside its walls, an ideal community of scholars and students hold soft hands, united in their vision of a perfectible future. Both fantasist and nostalgic, that vision of the university promotes expectations of a "safe space" where the ideational realm prevails, and the ordinary violence of reality is too raw to admit, both literally and figuratively.

With this latest student protest in Missouri, that vision of the university has been fully exposed as a fiction. Revealed as a political instrument invested in controlling access to elite services and positions, the university's task is to reproduce dominant sociocultural structures commonly understood, however vaguely, as the operative hierarchies of "power." More accurately, however, the concurrent example of the protest at Yale illustrates that "the university" is fracturing into multiple nodes where no single cultural rubric prevails, and that institutional vulnerability is itself making it possible for student protests to resonate as parables of the nation's divisive, incoherent politics.

In conversation with me via phone, Mizzou faculty member Daniel Domingues emphasized the breadth and depth of the crisis at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He was one of the dozens of faculty signatories of a statement of support for "our students engaged in bringing awareness to institutionalized racism and its intersected forms of oppression" at this public university. The campus was not in turmoil because of isolated incidents of micoagression where students of color were made to feel like intruders, belittled and ostracized simply for not being white. It started last year when the administration summarily yanked healthcare from the university's graduate students, and had refused to hear their concerns.

As student protests intensified, so too do did the pushback, which included repeated and grotesque incidents of racism on campus, such as cotton balls being tossed around the Black Culture Center on campus, and the president of the UM student association being called various racial slurs. In this larger context, it becomes clear that the most recent, outrageously offensive acts such as swastikas being smeared in feces on the bathrooms of student halls, were intended to intimidate students from speaking out against systemic issues that affected all students of color, but were most consistently being expressed as anti-blackness.

The walkout planned for Monday and Tuesday would have had the participation of hundreds of faculty and grad students, representing a merging of several movements on campus, including the anti-racist protests as well as coordinated efforts by the graduate student forum. On Nov. 2, black graduate student Jonathan Butler had begun a hunger strike, which would "end either in his death or in the removal of [Tim] Wolfe from office." By Nov. 6, numerous academic departments had released statements declaring their support of Butler. But it took a statement of solidarity by the most powerful members of the student body--the football players--to finally tip things over the edge, to the point where the scope of the problem spilled out beyond campus walls and became a topic worthy of national attention.

As William C. Rhoden wrote for the New York Times, the solidarity shown by the football players of the Missouri team for other black students on campus was remarkable precisely because they were "lending their support to a fight that, on its face, did not include them," at least not on the level of sports. The statement issued by the black football players declared resoundingly: "The athletes of color on the University of Missouri football team truly believe injustice Anywhere is a threat to Justice Everywhere....WE ARE UNITED!!!!" The next day, the coach as well as the rest of the football team announced their solidarity with their teammates. The Missouri football team had been scheduled to play a game this Saturday. Canceling the game could have "cost the school millions."

At 10 a.m. Monday, following an emergency meeting of the Board of Curators, the president of the University of Missouri-Columbia resigned.

Pessimistically, it is possible to see Tim Wolfe's resignation as confirmation that the public university has capitulated to a utilitarian model that chiefly exists to manage income-generating resources. In this light, it makes sense to accommodate those resources that generate the most institutional revenues, which means keeping the football players happy. Not even the president of the university supersedes the political mandate, coming from the state level, to generate revenues and keep constituents cheering for their team.

Optimistically, though, the turmoil on the UM campus offers a potential lesson in the power of solidarity among people of color that, in this localized example, started with the students and swiftly included large swaths of the faculty as well as all the members of the football team, including the white players and the coach. In recognizing the wrongness of racism and "joining together to fight an evil," as Domingues said, hundreds of individuals on campus were willing to stick out their necks and risk their professional futures in order to bring about institutional change at the structural level. In advance of Wolfe's resignation, Domingues said hopefully: "All in all, I think this has been a very positive movement because it has brought awareness, it has helped build a community aware of the need for inclusiveness. We are moving in a positive direction."

Check out our video summary on what's happening at the University of Missouri:
[jwplayer file="" image=""][/jwplayer]

By Paula Young Lee

Paula Young Lee is the author of "Deer Hunting in Paris," winner of the 2014 Lowell Thomas "Best Book" award of the Society of American Travel Writers. She is currently writing outdoor adventure books for middle grade and young adults. Follow her on Twitter @paulayounglee

MORE FROM Paula Young Lee