Post-Protest Mizzou: Adverse Consequences of the Capitulation

Nearly three months have passed since student protests upended the institution where I teach law, the University of Missouri (Mizzou). There have been several changes on the Columbia campus.

We now have a highly regarded African-American interim president, Michael Middleton, who has a long history at the university. Our interim chancellor seems far more attuned to the campus climate and hosts weekly “chats with the chancellor” to foster a more open atmosphere. On the surface, things seem to have returned to normal or perhaps even improved.

Recent trends, however, suggest that post-protest Mizzou is likely to experience three adverse developments.

First, a great university needs well-qualified students and the financial resources to hire and retain top faculty. Capitulating to the protesters has impaired Mizzou’s ability to secure both.

Not surprisingly, applications are down significantly. According to a leaked internal memorandum, undergraduate applications for the 2016-17 term dropped by five percent from the previous year. Graduate applications fell a whopping 19 percent.

In particular, applications from students with high ACT scores (30 or above) were down 7.7 percent, and the number of African-American applicants plummeted by 19 percent.

While numerous factors affect application numbers from year to year, it’s hard to believe that last fall’s widely publicized protests aren’t largely to blame for the decline. 

With fewer applicants to choose from, particularly at the top end, Mizzou’s incoming class is almost sure to be less qualified than its predecessor.  

The application numbers also portend financial difficulties for the university. The drop in undergraduate applications was entirely from out-of-state applicants. A substantial reduction in out-of-state students, who pay much more in tuition than do Missouri residents, will impair the university’s financing.

There’s almost no chance that state funding will offset the shortfall in tuition receipts. Many Missouri voters believe that the protesters’ demands—e.g., that the president of the four-campus system be fired because of a few isolated racist incidents over which he had no control—were unreasonable. When faculty, coaches, and staff endorsed those demands and feckless administrators capitulated, no one from the university would speak reason for fear of being called a racist.

Voters have lost confidence in the institution and legislators have responded predictably. Many of them are threatening to reduce the university’s funding for next year.  

If enrollment drops and the legislature reduces state support, the university will have to raise more money from private donors or cut spending. While data on Mizzou’s post-protest fundraising aren’t yet available, the frequency with which remarks like “I’ll never give another dime to that school” are heard suggests that the former outcome is unlikely. Budget cuts are almost certainly coming, and Mizzou’s academic offerings will suffer. 

Second, free speech and open inquiry will suffer.

Mizzou officials responded to the repugnant racist expressions that sparked last fall’s protests by restricting speech that some people might find “hurtful.”  

Much of this is just the silly, relatively harmless, political correctness we’ve come to expect on college campuses. Some efforts, though, threaten to undermine the open inquiry that should lie at the heart of a university.  

In the former (silly but harmless) category is Mizzou’s recently released speech guide, The Language of Identity: Using Inclusive Terminology at Mizzou. Among other things, the guide directs students to employ gender-neutral pronouns like “ze/hir” or the (grammatically incorrect) “singular they/them” when unsure of a person’s gender identity, and to avoid “cultural appropriation” (“taking and benefiting from the expression, ideas, artifacts, etc. of another culture without permission”). 

The continual instruction in speech etiquette is annoying—a professor friend of mine, for example, wished to know from whom he should seek permission before making a curry—but it gives the university’s diversity bureaucrats something to do.

Of greater concern is the general push to muzzle “offensive” expression. The most blatant example   occurred the day after Mizzou’s president resigned. All students, staff, and faculty received the following e-mail from the university police department:

To continue to ensure that the University of Missouri campus remains safe, the MU Police Department (MUPD) is asking individuals who witness incidents of hateful and/or hurtful speech or actions to:

  • Call the police immediately at 573-882-7201. (If you are in an emergency situation, dial 911.)
  • Give the communications operator a summary of the incident.
  • Provide a detailed description of the individual(s) involved.
  • If possible and if it can be done safely, take a photo of the individual(s) with your cell phone.

While cases of hateful and hurtful speech are not crimes, if the individual(s) identified are students, MU’s Office of Student Conduct can take disciplinary action.

Of course, “hurtful speech” occurs all the time in an environment in which controversial ideas are vetted.  Might students or faculty be called before some conduct committee for saying that affirmative action is unfair and hurts those it purports to help, that Christians who oppose gay marriage are bigots, or that Islam is not a religion of peace? 

Each of those statements could be “hurtful” to some people, but each should be allowed at a university.     

Some readers will think I’m being alarmist. Surely well-intentioned efforts to prevent hurtful speech couldn’t squelch academic discourse in any meaningful way. Unfortunately, the past conduct of Mizzou’s diversity officials suggests otherwise.

Consider an incident that occurred months before last fall’s protests. An infectious disease specialist at Mizzou’s teaching hospital was scheduled to present at the internal medicine department’s “Grand Rounds.” (Grand Rounds is a high-profile, weekly presentation of medical findings, enabling physicians and medical students to keep up with the latest research.) 

His talk was to cover trends in syphilis infection rates, which have spiked dramatically in the South, especially in disadvantaged communities. He gave it the somewhat corny title: “Like the South, Syphilis is Rising Again.”

The morning the doctor was to present his findings, he received an e-mail from a university diversity officer, who reported that some people were “very offended” by the talk’s announced title. The complainants asserted the title hearkened back to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, a shameful federal medical study in which black men with syphilis were deceived into thinking they were being treated for the disease but were intentionally given a placebo.  

Moreover, the diversity officer explained, “simply the idea that the South is ‘rising again’ has negative racial overtones.” 

The befuddled physician responded that the title was simply an effort to capture the essence of his findings using a familiar phrase. He said he planned to state at the outset that the title was a misnomer—it would have been more accurately (but less cleverly) worded, “IN the South, Syphilis is Rising Again.”  

Mizzou’s diversity officials were unrelenting. They insisted the talk could not be given as titled, and, since there was no time to change the presentation’s title, that week’s Grand Rounds had to be cancelled.  

Eight months later, the physician was permitted to make his presentation under a less offensive title, “Syphilis: An Update.” During those eight months, valuable information that could have helped doctors better diagnose and treat their patients, especially those from disadvantaged communities, was suppressed merely to preserve the feelings of a hypersensitive few.

Finally, and most ironically, the protesters’ success is likely to worsen race relations at Mizzou.

As noted, an apparent result of the protests has been a disproportionate reduction in applications from black candidates. Following last fall’s turmoil, however, there is tremendous pressure on admissions officials to increase the percentage of black students. 

To achieve that with a “whiter” pool of applicants, the university will have to admit a higher percentage of black candidates than in the past, but that will require lower admissions standards for black students. The result will be to increase the discrepancy between the credentials of Mizzou’s white and black students.

That is likely to impair race relations by fueling “implicit bias” against black students. 

One of the major complaints of the protesters was that white members of the Mizzou community, even if not overtly racist, implicitly believed their black colleagues were less qualified, and often acted in ways that betrayed that belief.

More aggressive affirmative action is likely to result in an increase in the proportion of black students who struggle academically. Consequently, Mizzou’s black students are more likely to conclude that the deck is somehow stacked against them because of their race.

The toxic combination of growing “implicit bias” among white students and an increase in demoralizing academic struggles among black students is apt to put additional stress on race relations at Mizzou.  

In the end, then, the protesters’ “success” may prove ephemeral.