By now you've heard about the unrest at Missouri. Angry over a spate of racial incidents on campus and what they perceive as a lackluster response from the university president, Tim Wolfe, students are staging demonstrations and the football team has now gotten involved.
I don't pretend to know the complexities of the campus culture at Mizzou, nor do I have much of an informed opinion on Tim Wolfe and his efficacy as a college president. I've never even been to Columbia, Missouri. But reading about what's transpired there, the protests seem way overblown. This isn't excusing racism, it's disgusting and frankly sad that people still hold such views in 2015. But no one was shot, no one was systematically discriminated against, no one was denied rights or liberties based on their race, religion, or any other identifier. The incidents that led to this mess involved individual students (or allegedly students; in one or two cases it may have been redneck townies) saying or doing racist things. Because Wolfe didn't go after these transgressors as hard as some would like, chaos ensued.
Here's the deal, there will always be racists and a-holes in the world. A small segment of the population will always believe they're superior to others based on characteristics that the rest of us understand don't matter, like race. Occasionally one of these people will give voice to his opinion and it will piss others off. Every once in a while this will even happen on a college campus, those bastions of progressive thought. But is a college president really a bad guy because he's incapable of preventing every one of his students from ever getting his feelings hurt? That sounds like dyadic completion, the erroneous tendency to assume that because there's a victim, there has to be a villain. In reality, a person in charge of 35,000 people aged 18-25, from diverse backgrounds and cultures, living together in a crucible of alcohol, drugs, and hormones, is going to have some unsavory things happen under his watch, no matter how dedicated he is to fostering peace and harmony.
Here's a synopsis of what happened at Mizzou:
The first two incidents involved racial epithets allegedly being shouted at black students. One student claimed he was walking across campus when a group of whites drove by in a pickup, rolled down the window, and yelled the N-word. Then, during a Legion of Black Students rehearsal for a homecoming skit, a white guy, apparently hammered out of his mind, stumbled onto the stage and began using the same word. I wish someone nearby had kicked this idiot right in the nuts. But what exactly is the university president supposed to do here, shut down campus operations until the offenders are identified and direct all resources toward finding them? We don't even know if the perpetrators were students, which begs the question, if they turn out to be townies, should the strikes and demonstrations be redirected toward the local police department?
In another incident, someone painted a swastika on a dorm bathroom stall in human feces, an incident Wolfe allegedly dismissed as a "prank." That's probably the wrong word for neo-Nazi symbolism, but we're also talking about a perpetrator who handled his own poop to get his message across. Maybe I'd feel differently were I Jewish, but that's not the kind of person whose opinions I take seriously.
I mean think about it, this is a person who either stuck his finger up his own butt or reached into a toilet he'd just unloaded a deuce into, gathered up a dollop of his own crap, and then used his finger to smear it on a wall. Regardless of what ethnic or religious group he's denigrating, as far as I'm concerned he's the only punchline in this situation.
He played with his own turds. By choice. Who cares what he thinks?
No one likes the idea of an anti-Semite down the hall, but if he can't get his hateful message across without taking a dump into his own hand, I consider that an even trade. It's not like we have to worry about systemic discrimination from this guy down the road because I highly doubt he's destined to become a Fortune 500 CEO.
Again, what is Wolfe supposed to do? Send the poop to a lab and demand a DNA sample from every student for cross-referencing? Not worth the time (or having to handle this loser's poop).
But since these are college kids and college kids have to be up in arms over something at all times, the campus powder keg exploded. First a graduate student named Jonathan Butler launched a hunger strike to force Wolfe from his job. Butler claims he won't eat until Wolfe is fired or he starves to death, whichever comes first. Next, in a show of solidarity with Butler, the football team went on strike, refusing to show up for practices or games while Wolfe is still president.
Based on my admittedly limited knowledge of the situation, here's what I think:
1) Hunger strikes are inherently moronic. The intention, of course, is to compel someone into a decision by staking a claim on their conscience. If the striker starves to death, the subject feels at fault, since he could have prevented it by complying with the striker's demands. But this is a fallacy. The striker is exercising free will, he can eat anytime he chooses. The decision to die of starvation is one he owns. Should the homecoming queen feel compelled to go to prom with the goth kid because he's going to stop eating if she says no? Personally, if someone tried to change my behavior by starving himself my response would be, have fun with that, I'll be at Texas Roadhouse.
This student's goal is attention, period. If his stunt succeeds in Wolfe's ouster, you can expect a book deal and for him to make a boatload of cash. I guarantee he's chronicling this process in a daily journal, which he'll start shopping around to publishers the day this ends. I wouldn't be surprised if he's furtively throwing down a Clif Bar every now and then to keep his thoughts lucid.
The Board of Curators at Mizzou should make any decisions regarding Wolfe's future irrespective of this kid's antics. If they want to assuage guilt over Butler wasting away, they can order a pizza to his residence, not let him dictate their personnel decisions.
2) The football strike would be more powerful if this were 2013 or 2014 with Mizzou leading the SEC East. But they're tied for dead last this year. They've lost four games in a row and could easily lose their last three (BYU, Tennessee, Arkansas). Strike or no strike, they probably miss a bowl. So at this point who really cares if they play or don't play? The strike almost smells like an excuse to pack it in during an awful season.
The team and coaching staff are scoring big points with the social justice crowd with this thing. But no one will convince me they would have done the same were it this time last year and Mizzou controlled their destiny in the East. Their response would have been, sucks there are racists on campus, but think how many NFL scouts will be in Atlanta (the site of the SEC championship game), let's get to practice.
3) Speaking of which, every player not showing up for practice or games during this hullabaloo should have his scholarship pulled, and every coach encouraging participation should be fired. Regardless if their beef with Wolfe is valid, this is not the way to handle it. Imagine when these kids enter the workforce, at least the ones who don't make the NFL, which, given the talent level at Mizzou this year is probably all of them. The boss says or does something insensitive and instead of going to HR or filing a grievance, the kid stops working but still demands a paycheck? That isn't reality. In reality, pulling a stunt like that gets you unceremoniously marched to the door.
College is when you should start figuring out how the world actually works. If these kids really believe in the cause, they should put their money where their mouth is. Can't play for a school led by Tim Wolfe in good conscience? Then walk away from your scholarship or transfer to another school. You think a bunch of junior traders at Goldman Sachs could effect a CEO change by banding together and refusing to work (but still expecting to be paid)? No, they would be fired instantly, which is why they wouldn't do something so stupid. They'd deal with the crappy CEO or, if they felt strongly enough, they'd quit and go apply at JPMorgan or Wells Fargo. Auburn always has an eye out for malcontents from other programs, these kids should vet the school's president and then apply there.
Gary Pinkel makes $4.02 million a year. For that salary, his ass should show up to work. Unfortunately, he's handcuffed by his players in this situation. If he forces them to play and yanks the scholarships of the players who refuse, he loses this team instantly. The media, most of which sit slightly to the political left of Che Guevara, would skewer him incessantly. His reputation among black players (like 99.99% of recruits worth recruiting) would be irreparably tarnished. In short, not supporting this strike is tantamount to career suicide for Pinkel. That's why the decision has to come from above his head, namely, the aforementioned Board of Curators. The university's reputation might suffer in the short term, but remember when Oklahoma was never going to get another black recruit because a bunch of frat members chanted a racist song on a bus and the school waited a long time to take action? Oklahoma's doing just fine, and people have long forgotten about that incident (I had to strain my brain to think of it for an example here). And that's the point -- as long as the villain is a faceless institution rather than a recognizable character (like Pinkel), people forget quickly in today's ADD society. If it had any balls, the school could put a stop to this nonsense with minimal long-term collateral damage.
It comes down to this, college used to be a place where kids shed the protective shrink wrap they wore during childhood and exposed themselves to the ways of the world, the good, the bad, and the ugly. They had their opinions challenged. They learned to deal with those who may not have their best interests in mind without running to mommy and daddy to protect them. They learned to deal with conflict without letting things get out of control. In short, they learned to be adults. Somewhere along the way, trigger warnings and free speech zones and sensitivity training has supplanted this crucial mission of American colleges. As a result, you have a situation in which a bunch of college kids are grinding university operations to halt because the president can't prevent three or four kids out of 35,000 from being racist pricks.
That shows no understanding of the ways of the world. It isn't dealing with conflict in a reasonable manner. And it certainly isn't being an adult. The link between shifting campus dynamics and the new normal of extended adolescence is real. Why do you think so many kids with college degrees -- even master's degrees -- are taking up residence in their mothers' basements? To paraphrase James Carville, it isn't the economy, stupid. Graduates weren't moving back home in droves in 1982 when unemployment shot past 10%, because in 1982 a kid would have been laughed out of the classroom for demanding a trigger warning on To Kill a Mockingbird. Today's college kids aren't learning to be adults. They expect the administration to play the role of mom and dad, and confront the school bully on their behalf, and the administration, perhaps in fear of losing students to competing schools, capitulates. It's a vicious cycle.
Missouri could begin to reverse this nefarious trend by demanding its football players fulfill the obligations of their scholarships or give them up to someone who will. It could resolve to ignore Jonathan Butler's childish antics. (This kid is not going to starve to death. As soon as the media moves on, which takes an average of 36 hours in today's society, he'll be spotted at Five Guys, mark my words.) The university could demand its students act like adults, and implore other schools to follow.
It probably won't, but it could.
UPDATE: This is why it's difficult to write about current events in the era of social media. The minute I hit submit, a Twitter update revealed Tim Wolfe has resigned. No due process, no thorough investigation, just a hasty resignation amid social pressure. Good luck to the next guy. It's certainly not a job I would want, regardless of the money.