U. of Missouri System Interim President: Talk to Students About Race

September 20, 2016

By Allie Ciaramella, Communications Manager 

College access and success professionals should be talking to students about racial tensions on campuses and across the country – no matter how difficult that may be, Interim University of Missouri System President Michael Middleton said today.

“You’ve just got to be honest and open and forthright,” President Middleton told attendees during a plenary address at NCAN’s 21st annual national conference, held this week in Detroit, Michigan. “What better place than a university or education generally, to talk about these issues and develop some solutions?”

President Middleton received a standing ovation for his candid address and responses to audience questions. A University of Missouri graduate and long-time administrator who exited retirement to take over the system in the wake of last year’s racial incidents against students and subsequent protests, which drew national attention, President Middleton lamented that today’s students are experiencing the same injustices he did on his first day of college 50 years ago. 

“A car passed by me full of some young white men who yelled out of the car – and I won’t use the n-word, but they certainly did – ‘n-word, go home’,” he said. “That greeting characterized the climate that I experienced for the next seven years.”

President Middleton got both his undergraduate and law degrees at Missouri and in 1968 became one of the institution’s early African American graduates. Now, he’s overseeing the system-wide adoption of an institutional framework based on inclusion – the brainchild of the system’s new and first-ever chief diversity, inclusion and equity officer – as well as an audit to identify further room for improvement. The framework’s four “pillars” include access and success, campus climate and intergroup relations, education and scholarship, and institutional infrastructure. Part of the work includes doubling the percentage of faculty on the main Missouri campus who are historically underrepresented – from about 7 percent to 14 percent.

Students of this generation are impatient, and aren’t always easy to satisfy, President Middleton admits. But by engaging them in each step of the process, he said, “they then will understand our limits to make immediate change. But secondly, you really have to do it. Often these strategic plans get put on a shelf … and we go back and celebrate ourselves and don’t do the work.”

NCAN’s new board president Marlene Ibsen asked how educators can also get through to the students whose actions are reminiscent of what President Middleton experienced decades ago.

“It’s important to expose young people to the diversity that exists and will continue to grow. We all know the demographic projections. There’s no way to avoid having to deal with people of difference in this country,” he said (later adding that he also takes issue with campus “safe spaces” when they shelter students from peers with controversial ideas). “We really have to educate young people that that kind of behavior – though they certainly have a Constitutional right to express themselves – that it’s not conducive to a culture and climate of learning and mutual respect. I guess civility is the word I’m looking for. And I think in our K-12 system civics has taken a back seat.”

President Middleton previously was deputy chancellor of the University of Missouri-Columbia, and he is a professor emeritus at the University of Missouri School of Law. As a student, he helped to found the Legion of Black Collegians. 

College access and success professionals should be directing their students to institutions that are embracing diversity, equity and inclusion in their operations, President Middleton said – and college administrators need to take those goals seriously, especially when the vast majority are white and likely haven’t experienced these issues personally. There’s something wrong, he said, when 84 percent of college presidents characterize race relations on their campuses as “excellent” or “good,” but only 24 percent say the same of race relations at colleges nationwide.

If campuses examine how history affects students’ lived experiences today, and bring in experts and host retreats and seminars with leaders, “I think most intelligent university administrators will get it,” President Middleton said. “If that doesn’t work, just point them to Mizzou and say, ‘Do you want that to happen for you?’”

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