The racial incidents that led to upheaval at the University of Missouri should strike a familiar note at the University of North Carolina. And how Missouri responded with the resignation of the system president and the chancellor of its flagship campus in Columbia should serve as a cautionary tale for Chapel Hill.
The Missouri resignations came as racial tensions on campus intensified and President Tim Wolfe seemed indifferent. When black student protesters blocked the university homecoming parade in Columbia, Wolfe simply sat in his parade convertible and waited for it to be over.
R. Bowen Loftin, who resigned as chancellor to take another university post, reportedly had lost faculty support after caving in to a conservative legislator who demanded that the school end agreements that allowed non-medical students to do rotations at a Planned Parenthood clinic.
The resignations came after black football players, supported by their coach, said they would not play Saturday unless Wolfe resigned.
In the aftermath, opinion divided. Some saw the resignations as appropriate. Wolfe was a former software company executive who had no experience as a university administrator, and it showed during the protest and in his misguided attempt to save money by shutting down the University of Missouri Press. Loftin appeared too accommodating to the legislature and out of touch with his faculty and students.
Others saw the resignations as a capitulation to students and a failure of university leaders to assert their authority. Critics further objected that the incidents were more about intolerance on the students’ part than racism in the campus culture.
There is truth on both sides in this matter. But what is significant for North Carolina is how many of the same elements are now in play in Chapel Hill, East Carolina University and other UNC campuses. There have been protests over campus buildings named for people connected to white supremacy, and vandalism against Silent Sam, the iconic Chapel Hill statue of a Confederate soldier.
Meanwhile, the UNC Board of Governors has hired a new system president, Margaret Spellings, with no experience as a university administrator or professor. Spellings has already raised skepticism among gay students by referring to their sexuality as a “lifestyle.” The board handed out big raises to chancellors while faculty have gone wanting. And the GOP-controlled legislature is meddling in the university.
It wouldn’t take much – a racial incident, more intrusion by conservative legislators, a stand by black athletes – to bring Missouri’s turmoil here.
It’s time for leaders to address the tensions with black students and faculty who feel mistreated and unheard. Ignoring them, as the University of Missouri’s president and chancellor discovered, will not make them go away.