Resignations, Racism, and Rhetoric

November 09, 2015

Tim Wolfe, president of the University of Missouri System, resigned this morning. Bowen Loftin, chancellor of the University of Missouri's Columbia campus, announced this afternoon he would step down to a research position at the end of the year. As a two-time graduate (M.A., 2005 and Ph.D., 2008) of the University of Missouri's flagship campus in Columbia, I have watched the controversies this semester with interest and concern. 

I have never been a fan of Wolfe, especially given his lack of academic credentials and his desire to run universities like corporations. However, I remain troubled by the rhetoric of the past week as issues of racism set the stage for today's resignations. Wolfe leaving is good for the MU System, but the way he left is not. 

The rhetoric demanding Wolfe resign might be effective for toppling someone but doesn't help build a healthy and sustainable environment. The student who became the face of the protest gained that status by going on a hunger strike until he died or Wolfe resigned. The decision to not eat remained that of the protesting student. Yet, the official petition created by the movement to oust Wolfe framed this as Wolfe not caring about the life of the student refusing to eat.

"In order for Jonathan Butler's life to continue, please remove Tim Wolfe from office," the statement declares. "Butler's life is on the line and he's made that clear. How can a man, TIM WOLFE, value his position over the life of a student? Positions can change, but if Butler's life is lost, he can never return."

This is the rhetoric of hostage-takers. Dramatic protest to attract attention is fine, but to suggest Wolfe should resign to save the life of the protesting student is not an intellectually-sound argument. What if somebody started a hunger strike demanding U.S. President Barack Obama resign? Would we really attack Obama for caring more about his position than someone's life if he refused to resign? Having a just cause doesn't justify any and all tactics and statements. 
The student activists leading the anti-Wolfe effort rightly pinged him for not listening or seeming to care about their concerns. His silence spoke volumes. He also demonstrated an appalling lack of basic understanding of systemic racism. However, the activists also seemed too quick to issue non-negotiable demands instead of seeking conversation, compromise, and cooperation. 

Both sides failed to listen. As the leaders of the anti-Wolfe movement wrote on their Twitter account, "We are tired of dialogue! We want action!" This false dichotomy between words and actions is ironic from a movement that's used a lot of words. Real dialogue - where each side truly listens and gets a voice - is action. 

The activists complain Wolfe didn't respond to them when they interrupted the Homecoming parade by blocking his car with civil disobedience. Yet, any time someone in the crowd responded to their monologues, they would remind each other, "Do not engage!" They refused to engage in dialogue but faulted Wolfe for not engaging in dialogue.

Screenshot from video of Homecoming protest
The faculty of the department I twice graduated from - the Department of Communication - issued a statement over the weekend that offers a healthier perspective.

"We condemn all racism on the MU campus, including but not limited to microaggressions, blatant acts, violence, and systemic inequality," the statement offers. "As Communication scholars, we recognize the transformative power of dialogue; we believe words shape our realities and that engaging multiple perspectives is vital. We also recognize the power of silence, enabled by white privilege, that too often shuts down dialogue and marginalizes members of our community."

A danger in fighting someone in power is one can become what they oppose: one who abuses power. It remains easier to demonize someone than to dialogue with them; it remains easier to force someone out of office than to enact systemic changes. 

It's time for the important and difficult work of eliminating racism. But I'm afraid the wrong lessons have been learned at school today.