As you may know by now, there is a lot of history being made at the University of Missouri (Mizzou) this week. Based off racially charged incidents, students came together to protest the actions, or lack-there-of, of the administration, resulting in the resignations of both the president of the Missouri university system and the University of Missouri chancellor. Links below are included for additional reading on the history of the situation to date. While the solution is not an easy one, and not something that can be changed with one simple action, the campus is still striving to move forward. This is an important time in history for our field and attention to this matter is extremely important. I’m not here to talk about the incidents that happened or the response from the campus. I want to highlight a group that, from my perspective, made a powerful decision and why that decision is important.
Students of color from the Mizzou football team tweeted a picture of more than 30 athletes of color standing up against the injustice happening on their campus, stating they would not participate in any football related activities until the president resigned. This was posted via Twitter on November 7, 2015. On November 9, President Tim Wolfe resigned along with chancellor. This move is significant. Students with influence made choices in response to what they believed to be wrong, and their campus listened to them.
As student affairs professionals, we are constantly telling our students that we believe in them and that they can achieve their goals. There are always struggles and obstacles that can hinder their success, yet often times, talking is all we do with them. We build them up, we tell them things we deem to be inspiring; yet we put the responsibility back on them. How many times have we heard from colleagues, or possibly ourselves, when we were students:
“You can get as good of grades as you want, but you have to work for it. I can’t get the grades for you.”
“You can and should definitely study abroad if you want! Here is the information. Good luck!”
“You can make a difference on this campus. Let me know how it goes.”
Phrases like that, or at least with that tone, are said all the time. When do we actually show our students how to study, or the process of determining financial aid, or how to register a student organization? Not often. Many of us, myself included, are plenty comfortable sitting behind our desks and letting our students figure it out on their own. That way we can later say, “Well, I talked with them about what to do, so now it’s on them to either do it or not. They are responsible now.” For many students, this is the first time they are given opportunities to make significant changes and choices for their lives and their experiences on campus. We need to lead by example.
Here is why the football team is important in my eyes: College athletics, whether it’s warranted or not, has all eyes on them on many campuses across the nation. They have so much influence on the student body, on alumni donations, on sponsorships, and on the overall morale on campus. The men at University of Missouri decided they were going to use their influence to stand up for what they believed in and it made a difference. Tim Wolfe didn’t resign after Jonathan Butler had been on a hunger strike for ten days, but he did when the football team got involved. I think that says something. These young men showed the rest of their campus and those of us watching from around the country how students can make a difference and be a strong force against oppression. They are not solely for our entertainment on Saturday afternoons in the fall while tailgating and cheering against our rivals. These students are part of our communities, and being an athlete is only part of what makes each of them a unique student on our campus.
Another great highlight of this story is that the coaches and staff stood with the men. On November 8, another picture was posted of members of the Mizzou football team. This time coaches and staff were also pictured with the students. This shows that professional staff members are allowing the students to do what they believe is right, and are standing there with them, supporting them. The students are the ones who made the decision to forego football related activities. Instead of letting them do their thing alone, the staff supported them and let the students see that they do have a voice and can make an impact. Student affairs professionals don’t have all the answers, and we can use the inspiration of our students to continue learning and having dialogues about ways in which our campuses can grow.
While I’m not crediting the football team as the main reason the president and chancellor resigned, I definitely think it played a major factor in their decisions, or in the pressure from others above and around them to actually listen and make some changes from within the administration. I believe that student affairs professionals should lead by example and walk with our students to support them and show them that even through horrible events and difficult challenges, change and progress can be made. This weekend, while you are cheering on your favorite college football team, please be reflective on how these student athletes impact more than just the current standings.