Missouri was recently called the “heart of racial tension in America.” After the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson in August 2014 and the recent events on the campus of the University of Missouri, that title isn’t undeserved.
But what’s happening at Mizzou—incidents of racism and bigotry—and what university leaders are doing (or not doing) about it sound eerily familiar.
When I was an undergrad at Texas A&M eight years ago, we faced similar issues to what’s coming to light in Missouri. Coincidentally, one of our university presidents during my time there was R. Bowen Loftin, who went on to become Missouri’s Chancellor (and recently resigned in the wake of recent events there).
At A&M, there were protests and rallies on campus in reaction to incidents similar to those that transpired at Mizzou, but the issues we sought to elevate and the frustrations we experienced weren’t new. Truth was, racial tension and racist incidents had been alive and well on campus for decades, since 1963 when Black students started attending the university.
And for decades, little was done by the administration to address racism as a destructive theme in the campus’ climate. Campus officials denounced episodes of hate and insensitivity only in their aftermath, never prioritizing ways to change a culture that tolerated such behavior.
As with most universities with a predominately white student body, our campus had a department dedicated to the academic and extra-curricular development of students of color, leaving the students, staff, and faculty affiliated with the department responsible for crafting and cultivating an inclusive environment.
While these resources are important and provide students with guidance and support during their academic careers, these departments and offices are too often regarded as the primary lever for ensuring students of color can thrive on campus. Universities forfeit opportunities to promote students of color when all campus entities aren’t making an effort to support and develop all students.
On the whole, higher education leadership doesn’t appear to know how to fully integrate their campuses and be inclusive of all students. This stems from the fact that our nation’s k-12 schools are largely segregated, due in part to systems that reinforce gaps in achievement and opportunity. College is often the first time students are in a racially diverse environment.
Universities largely direct efforts to promote diversity towards students of color specifically and not the entire student body, who must also learn how to operate within a multicultural society. Students often become more in tune with those who they culturally identify with during these pivotal years, but it’s the universities’ responsibility to create an environment where students learn and understand the importance of living with, learning from, and respecting one another regardless of race.
Higher education leaders have a responsibility to know and understand the entire student body they serve today, not cater primarily to the needs of an “average” student (from a decades-old conception). They must recognize what every student needs to thrive on the entire campus and in a larger society.
As our country moves to become a minority-majority nation, leaders’ understanding of their students, educational equity, the history of their institutions, and cultural competence will be even more essential.
Our university leaders must also become more proactive in the face of bigotry and racism instead of reacting to racially motivated events after they happen. These incidents are the only times we hear campus presidents and officials promise to improve their campus communities—and that must change. We need leaders who say things and act in ways that show that they understand that inclusive campuses are essential to the learning experience for all students.
From micro-aggressions to racist incidents, what we’re seeing on university campuses is simply the tip of the iceberg. There are much larger, systemic issues of racial oppression, bias, bigotry, and racism that run deep in our country. If, as a nation, we are to move beyond them together, we need courageous students and alumni to demand change. We also need leaders to assess and address their institutions’ power structures and build inclusive institutions proactively.
I wish that what we’ve seen at the University of Missouri was an anomaly. But as we’ve seen on campuses nationwide, it’s not.
Racial incidents won’t become a thing of the past until we add momentum to this call for change and challenge university leaders to take a new approach towards eradicating racism on their campuses and making it a higher priority.
Tayler Torry is the Associate, Regional Operations for Education Pioneers where she manages day-to-day business operations and event logistics for our newest EP sites. Tayler joined Education Pioneers because of her passion for public service and providing a well-rounded education for underserved populations. Tayler earned a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from Texas A&M University where she served as the university’s Executive Director of ExCEL (Excellence Uniting, Culture, Education, and Leadership) in the Department of Multicultural Services.