Thompson: Missouri is wake-up call for Mich. colleges

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

The swift resignations last week of University of Missouri System president Tim Wolfe and chancellor R. Bowen Loftin became the latest and clearest examples of why universities must adequately address issues of race and diversity on campus.

The mass protests on the Mizzou campus that expanded to the school’s athletes and drew students who said the university had been tone-deaf in the way it handled repeated threats to black students presented hard lessons for colleges to be more welcoming to diverse student bodies. And in Michigan, some college officials say they have launched efforts to avert similar developments on their campuses.

University of Michigan spokesman Patrick Fitzgerald said the Missouri developments occurred just as officials in Ann Arbor were conducting a campus-wide summit Nov. 4-12 as part of a long-term diversity strategy planning process. Mark Schlissel, the university’s 14th president, said addressing diversity will be a major focus of his administration. Schlissel said he has asked deans and directors to map out specific plans to achieve diversity at the university.

“While the challenges to diversity, equity and inclusion have been decades in the making, and though they continue to be present today, I have every confidence that they will not outlast our will,” Schlissel said in February during a “Dialogue on Diversity” leadership breakfast at the university.

Capri’Nara Kendall, a university senior and president of the Black Student Union, met with Schlissel Friday to address concerns that triggered the group’s protest last year on Twitter. One of the group’s demands was to locate a new Trotter Multicultural Center closer to central campus. Michigan hopes to announce a location by December and complete construction in 2017.

“In comparison to other universities, Michigan … does have a lot of resources that other universities neglect to give students of color,” Kendall said. “Because we have so many resources … we demand that the university do more for students of color.”

Kendall said she has faith in Schlissel. “He hasn’t given me any reason not to trust him. He told me that the university is committed,” she said. “But who is being held accountable if they are not implementing the diversity plans that he announced?”

Schlissel has indicated that there will be an evaluation process to hold deans and directors accountable in achieving diversity.

Kendall said students at Missouri engaged in “one of the most groundbreaking demands in history for racial diversity on campus. It was so powerful and successful because athletes at the university joined the movement.”

She said Schlissel has said that if supported by the data, he would fully back the students’ demand to have a required, campus-wide course on race and ethnicity for all students, something the Black Student Union believes will help students to understand and be accepting of diverse cultures.

Arnold Reed, past president of the Black Student Union, said Mizzou is bound to influence how students proceed in demanding equity and inclusion on college campuses.

“The incidents at Missouri have brought students together in solidarity here at Michigan. I believe that the occurrences in Missouri were a signal that students have the ability to prompt institutional change at their respective universities,” Reed said.

Reed, a senior who plans to enter law school, said he is satisfied with the diversity trajectory under Schlissel’s leadership.

“These initiatives have started a very interesting conversation at the university,” Reed said. “However, time will be the ultimate test for many of these initiatives. It is important to me that these initiatives are not only put in place, but are continually sustained and strengthened.”

At Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, where there are 2,644 black and 1,162 Latino students in the 23,556-student body, university president John Dunn said the Mizzou situation should prove to be an instructive moment for all universities.

“Swift action must be taken not only in response to events such as these, but include proactive and consistent efforts toward acknowledging the history of racial oppression in the United States and facilitating open and authentic discussions, fostering cultural humility and taking immediate, sustainable action,” Dunn said.

Dunn said WMU instituted a diversity and multicultural action plan a decade ago that resulted in the appointment of a vice president for diversity and inclusion, making diversity part of the university’s strategic plan and monitoring racial incidents on campus through a “Diversity Climate Survey” to assess areas that need attention.

“Addressing issues of race and diversity for higher educational institutions is a challenge, but also an important opportunity. Academic and social diversity benefits all students and the wider community,” Dunn said. “If we can get this right as a campus community, our students will be prepared to make a huge contribution in their future civic and professional roles.”

Senior Domonique McGhee heads the Black Student Union in Ypsilanti at Eastern Michigan University, which is only now beginning to grasp the need for racial diversity as evidenced in its current search for a chief diversity officer. McGhee who said she is a member of the search committee, concluded that “It is time that the needs of our minority students be heard and not overlooked. We are tired of getting emails from the administration to pacify us.”

Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” on WDET-101.9FM at 11 a.m. Thursdays. His column appears Thursdays.