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Students’ power

By Ucehe Onyebadi
NEWS about the senseless massacre of innocents in Paris, France, last Friday naturally eclipsed other significant events on the twenty-four-hour agenda of news around the world.

Not even the news about the killing of Jihadi John, Kuwaiti-born Mohammed Emwazi, could compete with the massacre in Paris. Jihadi John was the first face of ISIS to find space on television screens around the world. He was the ISIS man who on television beheaded hostages of the blood-thirsty organization he represented. Last week, US drones wrote his obituary.

The other piece of news that went viral on the Internet and featured in US media was the event that unfolded at the University of Missouri, my alma mater. It was the resignation of Timothy Wolfe, president of the three-campus University of Missouri system.  Hours later, the chancellor of the main campus in Columbia, R. Bowen Loftin, also gave notice that he will quit. Both top officers of the university had to go because of how they, especially Wolfe, flagrantly mismanaged the issue of racial tensions which were tearing the university apart.

The undercurrent of racism and its attendant tensions had been simmering over the years at the Mizzou campus in Columbia, but the authorities appeared to turn a blind eye and instead got busy with what they must have adjudged to be more important administrative issues. Last September, the president of the students association at the university, Payton Head, complained about some white students yelling racial slurs at him.

The authorities did not take up the issue in any substantial way. Some faculty joined the protests against the overt racial tensions, but the authorities paid little attention. In October, a group of students known as Concerned Student 1950 (the year a black student was first admitted to the university) began protests and demanded that the administration handle the issue before it got out of control. Once again, the authorities only took judicial notice of their complaints and no more. Thereafter, Jonathan Butler, a black student went on hunger strike to bring attention to the issue, yet the administration did not give more than a nod about the issue at stake.

The tempo of the on-campus protests and crisis reached its climax when a group of African-American Mizzou football players joined the protests. They were unequivocal about not participating in their scheduled game unless the president quit. Their white colleagues backed them. And their coach, Gary Pinkel, cast his lot with his players. That was the moment the authorities woke up from their administrative reverie and recognized the seriousness of the problem. But then it was too late for Tim Wolfe to save his job. For the footballers to boycott the game would have cost the university more than $1million, in addition to other intangible losses.

Wolfe had to go, for the Mizzou football team is a strong revenue-earning force for the university, and the African-American students form the bedrock of that team that is prominent in college football in America. It was a situation where the students used their power to force action by the system, and won. That action is currently having silent repercussions across the board in the US where college athletics is a huge revenue earner among universities, all of which are currently experiencing financial downturn.

Three salient issues, among others, easily stand out on this matter. First, it shows the extent to which the US democratic culture is reflected on its campuses. Students have the right to express their views on issues they consider fundamental to their wellbeing. In my university, as in most universities, we have students represented on the Board of Trustees, the highest governing council in the system.

Silencing the voice of students

The voice of students cannot be silenced. Sometime last year, a student started a petition to prevent the state governor from being invited to speak at the university’s commencement (convocation) ceremony. No one penalized or victimized her for that effort.

Equally informative is that in spite of how much we can criticize the Mizzou authorities over failing to live up to expectation, they did not go the extra mile to invite the police to quell the students’ protests, as easily as the case in most developing nations where the first option for university authorities is to use force to disband any form of students’ protest. I recall the sad days of “Ali Must Go” in Nigeria of the 1970s when the university authorities, with the support of Obasanjo’s military government, used all manner of force to brutalize students who were legitimately protesting the hike in the cost of university education.

Another important issue in the Mizzou saga is what appears to be the most common disease among university administrators anywhere in the world. Typically conservative, they oftentimes fail to take action and become uncommonly indolent in the face of serious issues affecting their students. You would think that a person in the office of Mizzou presidency would be the first to respond to an issue as serious as the clamour for the authorities to do something about the increasing incidents of racism on campus. No. He waited until the situation completely got out of control. Indeed, reactionary university administrators are found all over the world.

Perhaps the most important lesson from the Mizzou students’ protests is that racism is not an issue in decline in the US. The hope, upon Obama’s coming to office in 2008, was that electing an African-American as US president was going to be a potent signifier that America had moved on from the ashes of the racism of previous years. That has not happened. The racial issues that precipitated the Mizzou protests, and many more incidents like that across the nation, make it hard to argue that racism is abating in any significant way in the US.

The tragedy, maybe, is that you cannot directly blame the older generation of Americans for hurling the racial epithets in Missouri. This time, they did not do it. The young ones who are supposed to represent the new generation of Americans were the ones flying the flag of racial hatred on campus. So sad.


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