Today on Facebook, an English Professor at the University of Missouri and former doctoral student of mine, John Evelev, made what he says will be his last post about the protests against racism at the University of Missouri that culminated in the resignation of the President and a second-highest level administrator, and then have led to quite a horrible number of overtly racist counter-protests and threats of violence against Black students, faculty, and even against ROTC members. He has written before about the climate of racism that the students detected and that is now rampant on campus. In this post, he extrapolates from their concerns and their protests about racism to the very idea of protest itself, to the concept of participation and civic action in a democracy.
What Prof Evelev wrote today is so important to the future of democracy and the future of higher education that everyone needs to take this in. He has given me permission to quote him here:
“While most people see this as simply or exclusively a protest against racism, the proper way to see this is as a pro-democracy movement. Universities and public universities in particular used to be democratic spaces, spaces of civic representation in American life. Faced with decreased public funding, they are being run more like businesses with leaders who are unresponsive or downright dismissive of students and faculty. The student protesters, along with the faculty and administrators who worked to remove Wolfe and Loftin were not just fighting racism, but fighting for university leadership that was democratic, responsive to the community, that recognized the university is not just an institution with a bad profit stream. It is easy enough for the right-wing to dismiss the goals of the students as "getting rid of racism," but what they don't want is an American population that actually seeks representation in their institutions, whether education or political. If faculty want shared governance, they are 'living in an ivory tower.' We should all want more involvement, more stake-ownership in the important public institutions of our society, not less.”
The student protestors were protesting against racism, a climate of racism, and specific racist acts. They were also protesting against being silenced, being rendered invisible--which, of course, is one of the most devastating and debilitating and definitional features of racism. The students were also advocating for the ability to have a voice, to make oneself heard. As Prof Evelev noted in another exchange, "Anti-racism is a democratic value." If anyone is silenced in a democracy, we no longer have democracy. That is true particularly of race, especially at this historical moment, as these students showed us.
In their protest, these students represent the highest aspirations of all education, higher education, and public education. Indeed, they represent, as John Evelev so beautifully states it, the aspirations of a public in democracy itself.
We have seen so many attempts to suppress democracy and participation in public life--from voting rights being curtailed to Supreme Court rulings making corporations into "people," thus allowing businesses and the vastly wealthy to have inordinate power in shaping democracy. President Jimmy Carter has said we are no longer a democracy but an oligarchy and many social scientists have said that, definitionally, he is correct. Is this the society we want?
We cannot, as a nation, allow this to happen. We must reverse this terrible tendency. And the university is the place where this re-energizing of an idea of a "public" must begin.
The university is where young people who are minors learn to become full active adults. If universities were only about vocational training, learning how to participate in a democracy would be a secondary factor. And, for the vast numbers of full adults returning for skills redevelopment, this certainly may be true. But, as a society, we have opted to make higher education the place where we send those who are just reaching their age of majority, our children, our society's future. We hope that, when they graduate, they will not only know more about a subject, about a field, about a discipline, about a vocation. We also hope and believe that they will be ready to be fully responsible adults and productive members of society.
In a democracy, that means participation. That means standing up for one's beliefs--in a way that is civil, responsible, meaningful, and true. That means learning to think clearly and articulate one's ideas. It means being able to write eloquently and express one's opinions persuasively. It means knowing not just a subject matter but why that subject matters in the world.
And sometimes it means protests--especially when an open car in which the president of your university is riding drives into a stadium in an official capacity and literally moves forward into a group of protestors, possibly even, according to one accusation, clipping one. Through this, the president sat in the car silently. These are his students, at his university. They were Black students. In Missouri, a state already riven by the incidents in Ferguson.
There is a lot of talk about whether or not the president should have resigned. It is his prerogative to resign. No one forced that decision. I don't know enough to comment.
What I do know for sure, about any university president, is that a president must set the moral compass of the university. Silence--in the car and in the aftermath--is not setting an example, is not modeling public discourse, is not addressing a problem. In view of that, it is not a surprise that he resigned. Not because of protestors, but because their protest threw into such vivid light what he himself had not spoken to, what he had not addressed. He isn't just anyone. He is the president, the leader. His actions and his words represent the university. He represents, in actual and symbolic power, what higher education and democracy are for.
Was he afraid to speak? We don't know.
In some ways, the resignation is as baffling as the silence leading up to it. Open, public, intelligent discourse, from the beginning and with wise and attentive and concerned leadership of the president, might have been far better for everyone. Now two senior leaders will be replaced with two other senior leaders. Replaced by what process? Replaced by whom? What does that solve? Replacing one president with another does not change the conditions of the university. Replacing one administrator with another does not redress the problem of racism, it does not touch the structural problem of racism.
Leadership change changes the leadership. Period. Open, strategic, participatory democratic attention is required to identify, address, and solve a systemic problem. Change will only happen if whoever comes into these positions is committed to a better way. Such commitment is hardly a foregone conclusion.
This leads to a larger issue, one that Prof Evelev is pointing to because it is a condition of higher education throughout the U.S. now. University presidents everywhere are under tremendous pressures these days, especially at public universities, to speak certain kinds of carefully guarded and protective and screened truths or be faced with trustees or governing boards who want their resignation. More and more presidents are being chosen by such boards, sometimes without real support from the faculty, students, staff, alumni, or other administrators. The case of the University of Iowa is especially pertinent here.
But it is a pattern, an alarming one. College presidents are being pressured to respond to politics, not to the mission and the calling of higher education. And I don't mean the small "p" politics of student protests but the larger party politics of governors, trustees, and funders who have ideological motivations and corporate ones too.
Higher education must be about the free circulation of ideas, about genuine and responsible expression of ideas, about public discourse at its highest and its most urgent, about debate and dissent conducted in public as well.
If there is no room for democratic discourse at a university, then our society is, quite simply, sunk.
I agree with Prof Evelev. The students protested against racism. What happened at the University of Missouri is also a powerful reaffirmation that a university must be a place where public discourse and public participation in democratic process is respected and heard and championed.
THIS IS THE UNIVERSITY WORTH FIGHTING FOR.