Mizzou pushes campus discussion in wake of protests

Students and faculty are tackling tough discussions of race to better understand one another

University of Missouri is encouraging more open dialogue about race and discrimination on campus in the wake of growing racial tensions, John Eligon reports for the New York Times.

Administrators have already taken a number of steps to address racism and discrimination on campus, such as:

  • Changing recruiting strategies;
  • Convening task forces to study campus climates;
  • Holding town halls to hear students' complaints; and
  • Implementing new sessions on implicit bias and diversity.

The university also launched an initiative more than a decade ago that included a two-day summit, campus climate study, and program called Difficult Dialogues. The program provided faculty members with techniques for discussing controversial topics and conflict resolution. As race-related issues become central to Mizzou's campus life, the university is encouraging the community to engage in more meaningful discussions about race and racism.

But engaging in these conversations has proven challenging, as many people remain uncomfortable discussing heated issues.

Regarding discrimination, "there's still a reluctance to want to use the explanation of race, racism," says Scott Brooks, a sociology and black studies professor who sat on a diversity panel in January.

Committee takes on race relations

Some students and faculty disagree about whether racism is an issue at Mizzou. To help overcome the barrier, Faculty Council Chair Craig Roberts convened a race relations committee comprised of people who have experienced racism—and individuals who are skeptical that racism exists at Mizzou.           

The interracial committee of students and staff aims to let people engage in honest conversations to help them achieve mutual understanding and respect. Members plan to bring the committee's methods to the greater campus community.

Raymond Massey, a professor of agricultural and applied economics, attended a committee meeting last fall and realized he could be more understanding of other people's views. He says, "I saw it as a pervasive problem that everybody was looking at their own side and understood their perspective ... [but] didn't understand the other person's perspective."

Listening and learning

To reach students, administrators must make an effort to listen to their concerns, according to Chuck Henson, who was appointed to be the school's interim vice chancellor for inclusion, diversity, and equity in November. Henson met with a number of community members, began coordinating diversity sessions for incoming students, and organized a lecture series about the history of black people in Missouri.

Recalling a conversation with Mizzou Hillel students following an anti-Semitic incident, he says, "If you are interested in a relationship, particularly in a circumstance where one is in a position of authority ... the right thing is to take the first step. Not to pretend that something didn't happen or that whatever happened didn't have a sufficient magnitude to cause you to react to it" (Eligon, "Education Life," New York Times, 2/3).

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