The Rule of Three

The Rule of Three:
Yale, Claremont McKenna and Mizzou

Published on April 28, 2016

It’s Thursday evening in Columbia, Missouri, and I’m sitting in one of the back rows of Room Seven in Hulston Hall, a building located squarely in the middle of the University of Missouri’s campus. Tonight, the university’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force is meeting. The matter at hand: an update on “Phase II: Expanding Membership.”

All University of Missouri students (of which there over 35,000), faculty (over 3,000) and staff (over 12,000) were invited to attend this meeting. There are around 20 people in the room.

The people who did come seem to be either professors or student journalists, and they’re scattered around the room looking vaguely bored. At the front of the room, David Mitchell, the task force chair, is fiddling with his laptop, preparing to give an address that will discuss the process by which students and faculty can apply to be on the task force.

One attendee, Director of Residential Life Frankie Minor, tells me it’s his first time going to such an event, and he hadn’t come in with any expectations about attendance.

“It’s St. Patrick’s Day on a college campus,” he says.

This is what the situation looks like now that The New York Times, The Washington Post and other major media outlets have packed up and left the University of Missouri just as quickly as they came. Mel Carnahan Quadrangle, which is right outside, would now be unrecognizable to most people without the tent city and masses of students once pictured all over the national media. Students stroll unceremoniously across the quad; it could be that of any campus in America.

Last fall, a string of protests took place, revolving around incidents of racism at Mizzou. The final and most intense protest ended with a weeklong hunger strike, a threat by the football team to boycott a game and the resignation of two of the University of Missouri System’s top administrators. But the protests have died down in recent months, as conversations on campus race relations move to closed meetings of university decision-makers and open campuswide forums like the one I’m attending.

November’s protests were the beginning of a series of events that has thrust the entire University of Missouri System into crisis mode. After the two administrators resigned, an interim president and chancellor, Mike Middleton and Hank Foley, were appointed. They have yet to be replaced. Mizzou faces a budget crisis brought on by a drop in enrollment and plummeting donations. And to make matters worse, the Missouri House of Representatives recently announced budget cuts to the university totaling over $8 million.

Mizzou was just one campus out of dozens nationwide that became hotbeds of student protests last fall. At Claremont McKenna College in Southern California, Dean of Students Mary Spellman chose to step down amid student furor over an email she sent that suggested one student of color didn’t “fit our CMC mold.” At Yale, an email from Silliman College Associate Master Erika Christakis defending students’ choice to wear offensive Halloween costumes, as well as an alleged incident of racial discrimination at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, sparked widespread demonstrations against discrimination on campus. In the Ivy League and elsewhere, students marched, protested and submitted lists of demands designed to improve college life for students of color.

Yet five months later, students studying, working and living on these same campuses are split over how much has really changed.

Mizzou Legacy Circle at the Mel Carnahan Quadrangle, where students pitched tents in November to protest racial discrimination on campus. (Jon Victor, Contributing Photographer)

“I hesitate to use the word ‘progress,’” said Jonathan Butler, a graduate student at Mizzou who waged the hunger strike that led to the resignation of University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe. “We’re not where we need to be, but we’re not where we used to be.”

Butler became interested in activism at an early age, participating in community organizations throughout middle and high school. He has a soft-spoken demeanor, but an intense devotion to progress. “I don’t fear death because I believe in God and I feel that whenever it’s my time to go, it’s my time to go,” he told me, recounting all the hate emails and other forms of backlash he received as a result of his involvement with the protests.

During Butler’s first semester at Mizzou in 2008, another student wrote “nigger” on the door of his room. He had also been called that slur and others while attending parties in Greektown, the section of Columbia that houses the majority of the school’s fraternities and sororities. He says his decision to launch a hunger strike “really just came down to the fact that I’ve really been fed up with the status quo of the university, its leadership and policies.”

Students at Mizzou, including Butler, said they’ve noticed greater sensitivity on campus since the protests. The administration is more loath to brush off something it might once have interpreted as simple vandalism, according to Mark Schierbecker, a student journalist who took video of the protests in November. At the beginning of March, a student wrote “Hitler rules” on a piece of paper in a hallway, he said, which was then treated as a sign of racism rather than an isolated incident.

“I hesitate to use the word ‘progress.’ We’re not where we need to be, but we’re not where we used to be.”

—Jonathan Butler, Mizzou graduate student

But at Mizzou, students are still waiting for more concrete changes. Concerned Student 1950, the group that led the protests in the fall, has since issued a revised list of demands to the administration, which call for an increase to 10 percent faculty of color by 2017 and comprehensive racial awareness curricula across all departments, among others.

“Concerned Student’s demands and everything they’ve listed as things that need to be considered haven’t been considered,” said Denajha Phillips, a black student who marched with the group in the fall. “There’s been word that change is going to happen but nothing has yet been put into play.”

On Nov. 9, the Board of Curators — the University of Missouri’s governing board — announced a series of initiatives to address “diversity, equity and inclusion.” These initiatives included the appointment of a chief diversity officer, a review of all UM System policies as they relate to staff and student conduct and additional financial resources for hiring a more diverse faculty and supporting students and staff who have experienced racial discrimination. The initiative also set up a task force to report on the racial climate throughout the University of Missouri System’s four campuses.

But Kendrick Washington — a senior and one of the current leaders of Concerned Student 1950 — dismissed the task force as idle talk, designed to placate the protesters. Others agreed.

“I feel like that was put into place kind of like a Band-Aid,” Phillips said. “[The task force] fixed the whole uprising for the moment, but I feel like that kind of totally disregards the initial demands.”

This is also true at Yale and Claremont McKenna, where some students remain frustrated with the pace at which reforms are moving.

Ivetty Estepan ’18, one of the organizers of the student demonstrations at Yale, acknowledged that the effects of concrete changes, like a $50 million initiative to increase faculty diversity and a new center dedicated to the study of race, will not be felt until much later. But certain demands — the renaming of Calhoun College and relabeling the term “master” — have taken much longer than she would have liked, given that Harvard and Princeton both made their decisions about a month after students pushed the issue.

On Nov. 17, University President Peter Salovey sent a campuswide email responding to student demonstrators, but his proposed initiatives did not address several of Next Yale's demands. (Aydin Akyol, Staff Photographer)

In most cases, it’s not that what students want isn’t being considered. It’s that universities and students can’t agree on how best to move forward.

According to interviews with current and former administrators at Claremont McKenna and Mizzou, including R. Bowen Loftin, who resigned as Mizzou’s chancellor following the protests, the barrier to faster, more tangible change is the glacial pace at which university policy moves. Both bureaucracy and sheer diversity of opinion can make it difficult for decision-makers to achieve any consensus.

“There is an impatience — understandably so — on the part of the students who have been subject to racial discrimination on this campus to see change,” Loftin said. “That’s the tension we have to deal with: How do you effect lasting change when most people believe that change which is lasting will take some time to craft and implement?”

Among the demands of Concerned Student 1950 were mandatory ethnic studies courses on the school’s curriculum, which Loftin said was not a reform that could be implemented quickly. Concerned Student 1950 also called for a floor on the number of minority faculty teaching at the university, a practice that Chuck Henson ’87, the school’s newly appointed Interim Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, said would be illegal in an open letter to the group.

Henson declined to comment for this article. Interim President Middleton, Interim Chancellor Foley and Title IX Administrator Ellen Eardley also declined to be interviewed.

Washington lamented the fact that, in his view, much of the action has taken the form of preparation: search committees, task forces, administrative appointments, working groups, internal reviews. And while administrators continue to assure students that real change is coming, student movements have slowed down in recent months, their organizers awaiting developments on initiatives they are skeptical will meet their expectations.

“That’s the tension we have to deal with: How do you effect lasting change when most people believe that change which is lasting will take some time to craft and implement?”

—R. Bowen Loftin, former Mizzou chancellor

At Claremont McKenna, the dorms are literally within spitting distance of the college’s main administrative buildings. This isn’t an accident, or because of space constraints. This is the kind of school where the dining staff rolls your burrito for you, then asks if you’re having a good day.

As one might expect at a school with a total enrollment of 1,328, students and faculty are accustomed to a greater degree of communication than would be found at Mizzou, for example, where a majority of students are sequestered in housing complexes a 10-minute drive from campus.

“If someone demanded these things at big schools, that would be kind of ridiculous,” said one Claremont McKenna student who supported the protests. “I guess since we are at a small college, we deserve to expect a lot of personal attention.”

But the closeness of students and faculty did not exempt Claremont McKenna from a similar wave of protests in November, led by a student group called “CMCers of Color.” The students demanded a permanent resource center, the immediate creation of two diversity officers for student affairs and faculty and a general education requirement for ethnic, racial and sexuality theory, among other reforms.

Claremont McKenna administrators, in particular President Hiram Chodosh LAW ’90, agree that student concerns should play an integral role in shaping college policy, though some said that didn’t necessarily mean implementing their demands without subjecting them to scrutiny. “Students should be empowered to grow awareness of their experiences, their observations about the world, their normative views on how the society or any particular college can change for the better,” Chodosh said. “I think that we also need to recognize that those views need to be engaged critically, thoughtfully, openly — and, in a phrase, any particular view, extreme, moderate, controversial or noncontroversial, needs to persuade.”

Claremont McKenna Dean of the Faculty Peter Uvin toed a similar line. Ultimately, he said, the administration’s goal is not to respond to the demands of the students — it is to do what is best for the college as a whole. In Uvin’s view, a college has many constituents: small groups shouldn’t single-handedly be able to drive the decision-making.

But when do student demands go beyond the mission of the college, or the scope of what it can reasonably achieve? W. Torrey Sun, who has served as acting dean of students since January, said he would work to implement any demands as long as they were reasonable given logistical limitations like timing and budget constraints. But these last two points have been the biggest points of disconnect between students and administrators, who, like Loftin, say students sometimes have an unrealistic or incomplete vision of how their reforms will be implemented.

In the fall, Claremont McKenna Dean of Students Mary Spellman resigned amid student outcry over an email they deemed racially insensitive. (Jon Victor, Contributing Photographer)

Denys Reyes, a senior who led the student protests at Claremont McKenna in the fall, believes the administration can do more to hear the voices of students of color. She said the search for a replacement dean has yet to begin, and as a result, the college is missing out on prime time to search for applicants, as people in higher education typically look for work during the spring. Furthermore, she said, decisions about the college’s new resource center for students of color are being pushed to the summer, when students will not be around to provide feedback.

Reyes believes that since the protests, the college could have included students in the conversation who feel marginalized, rather than those who already had ties with the administration. “One of our demands is that we be included in the dean search,” Reyes said. “They chose students at their own discretion to be part of that search. Some of the students feel perfectly fine at CMC, or they’re white-passing. There should have been a better selection process, and students of marginalized identities should have been included in that selection process.”

Administrators see it differently. Nyree Gray, assistant vice president for diversity and inclusion, said Claremont McKenna has been communicating with students. An email went out to all students inviting them to be part of a steering committee, she said, in addition to hosting open forums and updating a website with details of the administration’s progress.

But Reyes’ complaint was also noted by Washington at Mizzou, and Estepan at Yale. Estepan has felt frustrated that only one undergraduate serves on the Yale Presidential Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion, which was formed shortly after the protests. “There’s this separation between the student body and administration that maybe is bridged by a certain few, but who are those certain few? At the end of the day, I think we’re all students and we should be asked for feedback before something is completely decided.”

Gray, at Claremont McKenna, agrees that student involvement in the decisions surrounding matters of inclusion is critical: “Students need to feel that they are part of these outcomes, and having them on the committees, having them make proposals, having them as part of our evaluation process and our feedback loop lets us know that we are assessing the issues correctly and that we are being responsive to their needs.”

But Washington did say that while students want additional support from the administration, students should not have to resort to protest to have their needs met.

“We shouldn’t have to tell the administration how they should be doing their job,” he said.

To the dismay of student activists at Claremont McKenna, initiatives such as increasing faculty diversity and implementing a general education requirement for ethnic, racial and sexuality theory will not take shape quickly. (Jon Victor, Contributing Photographer)

The administration would respond that their job is more complicated than it seems.

Loftin was quick to point out that some demands, like reforms to the school curriculum to require ethnic studies coursework, do not fall under the jurisdiction of the chancellor but rather the faculty. This is also the case at Claremont McKenna, where the faculty are widely split on whether the college should implement such a requirement or not, according to Uvin.

Hiring minority faculty, too, is not a reform that can happen overnight, administrators say. While there are limited funds for faculty salaries and a comparatively smaller pool of faculty of color from which to hire, Gray said the college has plans for more diverse hires once positions at Claremont McKenna open up. Of 52,749 doctorates conferred in the United States in 2013, just 2,167, or 4.1 percent, were earned by African Americans, according to the annual Survey of Earned Doctorates.

“What is frustrating for me, being one of few minority faculty members, is that one of the demands that the group has is to increase minority hires,” said Cynthia Frisby, a black journalism professor who has taught at Mizzou for the past 18 years. “One of the things I know for certain is that that’s good ideally, but there’s not a lot of us that are going on for higher ed degrees. It’s like fishing in a pool where the fish aren’t there.”

It has become increasingly clear that while students champion immediate reforms, certain barriers, like the inherent exclusivity of a working group and the level of consensus required to change policy, create frustration for those anxious for change.

“Yes, the resource center is happening. Yes, the dean of students is working more actively with affinity groups,” Reyes said. “It’s just moving so slowly.”

“One of the things I know for certain is that [increasing minority hires] is good ideally, but there’s not a lot of us that are going on for higher ed degrees. It’s like fishing in a pool where the fish aren’t there.”

—Cynthia Frisby, Mizzou journalism professor

As proposals move from the minds of campus protesters to the desks of high-up administrators, questions remain about how to make sure students are happy with the reforms. The activist groups that were once active are starting to disintegrate, and support has waned.

At Mizzou, just two of the 11 founding members of Concerned Student 1950 remain, with many having dropped out to give younger students an opportunity to lead. Even Butler, around whom Concerned Student was formed in its earliest days, has distanced himself from the group. And Next Yale, a collective of student groups that marched on University President Peter Salovey’s house in December to submit a list of demands, has not held any other protests in recent months. Shortly after the demonstration, Salovey sent an email to the Yale community announcing a list of inclusion initiatives. But his email did not address all of the students’ demands, and there has been little, if any, follow-up on specific requests like the implementation of an ethnic studies requirement for undergraduates.

“[Students] get tired of hearing the same voices on campus all the time,” Schierbecker said of Concerned Student 1950. “So a lot of the novelty of the group has worn off.” Time has had the same effect at Yale, with Next Yale’s list of demands fading from the Facebook group “Overheard at Yale” and campus bulletin boards. Estepan said this has been largely due to students’ need to recuperate emotionally after a demanding second half of the fall semester. But she also noted that the nature of the group’s activism has shifted, and that it is ongoing in different forms. Now, instead of protests, there are teach-ins about race as well as other informal talks about issues coming out of the events of last fall. The caveat is that these events are organized largely by students, not the administration. But Estepan was optimistic that the protests had incited a new dialogue about race on campus that had previously been lacking. In the African studies and ethnicity, race and migration courses she shopped this semester, all were filled to capacity or above.

But it is not necessarily so at Mizzou. Sensing that conversations about issues of race on campus had been slowing down in the beginning of a new semester, Washington saw an opportunity to stir the pot. Along with Washington, around two dozen protesters interrupted a Board of Curators meeting in February to read a list of demands for improving the racial climate on campus. The protest was intended to remind people that the group’s efforts are ongoing, and that issues related to inclusion have yet to be resolved, he said.

“Those conversations should have kept happening,” Washington said. “We felt that people were not conscious about what was still happening on this campus. It was so much bigger than Tim Wolfe leaving office. We want people to know that it’s a movement, not a moment.”

Protests at Mizzou have slowed down in recent months, but students have noted a heightened degree of racial sensitivity on campus. (Jon Victor, Contributing Photographer)

Students of color interviewed at Yale, Claremont McKenna and Mizzou don’t agree on whether they feel any differently now about being a minority on predominantly white campuses. But aside from influencing policy, the protests have served to show some students that they aren’t alone in feeling out of place on campus. Although a campus revolution is yet to come — and may be for some time — Washington and others said that part of what has come out of the protests is a greater sense of belonging among students of color.

“Now that Tim Wolfe isn’t in the position he is, there’s more comfort knowing that if something is going to happen it would be taken care of correctly,” said Rachel Cheever, a black student at Mizzou. “Walking on campus, there’s more of a feeling that your color and your life is valued.”

Even as affinity groups have solidified, many students and faculty at Mizzou spoke to an animosity that fall’s unrest has stirred up among the student body. Stephanie Shonekan, director of the Black Studies department at Mizzou, said the amount of backlash the protesters received raised pre-existing tensions to another level.

In the weeks immediately following the protests, matters were tense even among minority students. Some black students at Mizzou said they felt pressured to take part in the demonstrations, even though one student said that joining Concerned Student 1950 meant separating yourself from the rest of campus. Cheever said there was a binary on campus, with little room in between for students who were conflicted or uncertain. “It was either you were protesting or you weren’t.” Yale had its own share of these troubles: during the weeks of unrest, a minority student who attended a free-speech conference claimed he had been labeled a “traitor” by other minority students.

Frisby noted that in the weeks following the protests at Mizzou, people would assume that people of color, including herself, were in support of the demonstrations. She added that the racial climate on campus is more tense than it used to be: she said some of her black students would walk around campus unsure of whether they were supported or hated.

“It’s not that white people have become more racist,” Schierbecker said. “I can see a lot of white people that wouldn’t be racist otherwise have dug in and their inner racist has started to show.”

And these tensions transcend campuses.

“I don’t feel any better,” Reyes, the Claremont McKenna senior, said. “If anything, I feel worse. I don’t even feel safe on my campus anymore. A lot of people don’t feel comfortable talking about race because there’s been so much backlash.”

Perhaps this division is one of the protests’ most concrete, universal, lingering effects. It’s unclear whether anything at the ground level has improved for students of color. But it’s obvious that those who are not convinced of the protesters’ cause are not afraid to make that fact known. As Washington stood and left the table where I had interviewed him, a white student who had eavesdropped on our conversation made a fart noise with her mouth and smiled, content in her mockery.

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