MU law professor dispels myths of 2015 campus protests

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The history of the fall 2015 protests at MU is beginning to take shape. It deviates from the popular national narratives that painted the campus as either especially racist or ungoverned.

“The issues raised at Mizzou can and will be raised elsewhere. Universities that learn from MU’s experience will do better than universities that don’t,” MU associate professor of law Ben Trachtenberg said.

That’s the main takeaway from his forthcoming article, “The 2015 University of Missouri Protests and their Lessons for Higher Education Policy and Administration,” set to publish in the Kentucky Law Journal this fall. Trachtenberg also served as chair of the MU Faculty Council from 2015 to 2017 and said he heard a cacophony of misinformation related to the protests.

Nearly three years later, he was inspired to set the record straight.

“If people read my article, I hope they will have a more nuanced perspective on what happened, even if they don’t agree with all of my conclusions,” he said.

In an effort to have his argument more widely read, Trachtenberg published an abridged version in the Washington Post on Wednesday: “Much of what you know is probably wrong: A Mizzou professor explains the racial protests that toppled a presidency.”

Both articles dispel several of the myths the 2015 protests, including the legitimacy of Concerned Student 1950’s demands, a racially and politically polarized campus climate, and the protesters’ culpability in MU’s recent budget woes.

In the fall of 2015, black student activists calling themselves Concerned Student 1950, named after the year MU first integrated, called on the administration to respond to reports of racism on campus.

Trachtenberg maintains the demands that students made — acknowledgement and correction of discrimination on campus, more black faculty, increased minority student retention — are common demands that have been made at dozens of other universities across the country.

What made MU’s situation in 2015 different, he said, were top officials ill-equipped to respond to student demands.

That’s partially due to then-UM System President Tim Wolfe’s inexperience in managing a university, Trachtenberg said. Wolfe was hired in late 2011 after a 30-year career in the corporate world.

“In general, absent a good argument, university presidents should be people with experience in higher education leadership,” Trachtenberg said. “It gives someone an extremely tough assignment if they become president coming out of business or politics without higher education experience.”

Further, then-MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin had been at odds with MU deans well before the protests for a number of unrelated reasons. With the message of the protests gaining momentum, the deans issued a vote of no-confidence against Loftin in early November 2015.

Both Loftin and Wolfe resigned amid the national spotlight on the protests.

But the internal conflict within the MU administration rarely made it into the headlines at the time, which were focused on the student protesters and the football team’s threatened refusal to take the field.

“That’s because it was a much easier story to tell,” Trachtenberg said.

He said the events surrounding Loftin and Wolfe’s resignations offer valuable lessons for higher education officials.

“If a leader of another institution says, ‘I don’t have to worry about that here because Mizzou has some weird, unique problem,’ that would be a mistake,” Trachtenberg said.

In the years since the protests, MU has battled not only an image crisis but also an enrollment plunge and budget meltdown. Some critics of the 2015 protests have blamed the student activists for souring MU’s image.

But Trachtenberg said that analysis misses an important part of the story.

“I will not deny that we suffered significant budgetary harm in the aftermath of the protests, directly linked to a decrease in enrollment,” he said, pointing to the hundreds of faculty and staff who have lost their jobs as a result.

However, his article is careful to place the blame for funding deficits not on the student protesters but the administration’s response to them.

“What I’m pushing back on is not that we lost tuition dollars. What I’m pushing back on is that it’s the students’ fault for somehow being unreasonable,” he said. “They were raising real concerns.”

Those students were simply joining a long tradition of college students emboldened to speak out against the social injustices they became more aware of over the course of their studies, he said.

“The Mizzou students who asked some questions about racial justice on campus, in Columbia, in Missouri, in the U.S., they’re part of a long tradition of people asking questions,” Trachtenberg said. “The civil rights movement was led by people not that different in age from today’s students.”

Since the protests, MU has made strides to improve its campus climate, affordability and communication across its colleges and divisions.

“The advice and counsel from faculty leaders such as Prof. Trachtenberg have helped the university make informed decisions about moving Mizzou forward,” MU spokesman Christian Basi said as part of a prepared response to Trachtenberg’s article, available in its entirety below. A version of MU’s response was published in the Washington Post Wednesday.

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