Shame and fear have framed much of the public narrative of the 2015 protests at Mizzou. We are asked to collectively be ashamed for allowing them to occur and are told that we must at all costs avoid “a repeat of 2015.” Let’s take a deeper look, and we might see that both the shame and fear have been unfounded.
Shame and fear are powerful emotions that we all have dealt with at one time or another. Shame is the negative judgment we subject ourselves to when our past actions diverged from the norms of our culture. The other side of the coin, fear, turns our attention to the future, seemingly trying to keep us safe. Yet without reflection, shame and fear spiral out of control, coloring our perceptions of evidence and making it difficult to consider a situation from different perspectives.
There’s no question that the protests were disruptive and led to a decrease in enrollment and a reduction in state funding. Shame for the events of 2015 led us to negatively shape our self-image as an institution, pushing us away from an in-depth examination of the root causes of the protests. Today, fear of a repeat of 2015 further casts the very idea of critically examining issues of inequity in a negative light. Any actions challenging the status quo seem to be perceived as unacceptable disruptions, making true dialogue nigh impossible.
Shame and fear have become anything but our protectors. Instead, they have perpetuated the injustices that gave rise to the protests in the first place and laid the groundwork for history repeating itself.
We should work very diligently to prevent a repeat of the protests not by quelling the protests themselves, but through addressing the underlying issues that gave rise to the unrest. Mizzou wasn’t and isn’t unique in grappling with racial injustice. What does make us unique are the very events we’re now told we must be ashamed of and fear a repeat: Students, faculty, athletes and staff bringing the problem to everyone’s attention and demanding change.
The protests put Mizzou in the perfect position to take a national lead in addressing difficult questions head-on and becoming a stronger, better and more equitable institution. Over the past five years, countless events across the nation have painfully highlighted the exact same issues, extending far beyond academic settings. The issues we refused to face head-on in 2015 are, if anything, more pressing today. It’s not too late to begin working to redress the injustices and grow as an institution and a community.
The perception that doing this would be shameful or some sort of defeat for Mizzou is without merit. Imagine if we had persisted in having the difficult conversations, really addressing the issues and moving to redress these historical and current injustices. Far from being to the university’s detriment, these efforts could have formed the core of a powerful marketing message for recruitment of students, faculty and donors: Come to the place where dialogue is happening even on difficult topics, the place where we critically examine the past, where you can become part of building a new future.
What we did instead was feel ashamed and continue to be fearful. We went to parents and legislators and apologized profusely for letting things get out of hand, and promised that protests like these would never be permitted on campus again — and continue to do so. Preventing a repeat of the events of 2015 even became a core responsibility for incoming MU leaders. Faculty and staff are now charged with placating the students, rather than encouraged to have meaningful, productive dialogue on these difficult topics.
We are told that addressing these questions and making tough and painful decisions, such as decisions on the Thomas Jefferson statue, puts us at odds with the legislature in Jefferson City: Why?
The state’s flagship institution is written into the Missouri Constitution. Everybody serves the state differently — and the role of the university is to educate students and conduct research with prosperity and the well-being of the state of Missouri in mind. Racial injustice is a matter for all. I refuse to believe in the Black/white narrative that bringing up fundamental yet sensitive topics makes the university a target for punishment. Where else are these discussions happening?
As a university, we shouldn’t be afraid of dissent. We shouldn’t be afraid of the economic downturn. And we shouldn’t be afraid of change, even radical change, when it comes to how we approach issues of race and ethnicity on campus.
“Not to repeat 2015” is not a constructive agenda nor a vision. Preventing something from happening is not the same as working toward something you do want. Let’s create a vision and agenda for addressing injustices that unites and inspires us all.
Johannes Strobel is a professor in the School of Information Science and Learning Technologies in MU’s College of Education and a lifetime member of the Missouri Alumni Association.