Spinning Mizzou

December 23, 2015

By CCAP at Forbes

The student protests of fall 2015 raged from coast to coast, nowhere more memorably than at the University of Missouri’s flagship campus in Columbia. There student demonstrations began in protest of the Obamacare-mandated withdrawal of university-provided health insurance for graduate student employees. From these beginnings, things escalated quickly and took on a racial cast as some African-American students complained of alleged incidents of racial animosity. As the scene grew more and more reminiscent of a Tom Wolfe novel, the world watched as the graduate student son of a millionaire railroad executive went on a hunger strike, and many members of the university’s varsity football team went on strike, supported by their head coach. Then, with a speed which surprised even those who don’t expect much in the way of courage from college administrators, the Mizzou administration folded like a cheap accordion. In a final act of surrender, the chancellor of the university (that is, of the Columbia campus) resigned and was joined by the president of the entire University of Missouri System for good measure.

At this point it is not clear how much this episode has damaged the Mizzou “brand,” but it seems obvious that the university must try to mend fences with several key constituencies, including state legislators (who voted a $220 million state appropriation to Mizzou for the current fiscal year), Missouri taxpayers, current Mizzou students and their parents (who cover the costs beyond the state subsidy), and prospective students and their parents.

This poses a truly difficult public relations problem: How will the University of Missouri explain itself? A glimpse of one possible PR strategy came last week, when the university’s office of marketing and communications released a document titled “The State of Mizzou.” Interestingly, the author of the piece is the assistant director of written communications in the communications office, rather than a high university official. A cynical observer might point out that plausible deniability is thus maintained, in the event the rhetorical strategy contained in the document fails to persuade.

The document begins with a two paragraph preamble, which is followed by ten bullet points. The preamble sets the relentlessly upbeat tone. Indeed, the first sentence is “Change is underway, and it’s a good thing.” (Why?) “We’ve been spurred to re-examine our priorities and reinvigorate our leadership.” (The latter involved the defenestration of the chancellor and the president, remember.) The fall semester’s turmoil is pitched as “an opportunity for real progress.”

What might this “real progress” entail? Bullet point 10 (“We have big plans”) lists the concessions the university has already made to the protestors, almost all of which involve spending more money on diversity programs – new administrative positions, new affirmative action hiring, and mandatory “diversity training for all faculty, staff and students.” It is a long list, but the reader is assured that “Mizzou is just getting revved up” and the listed concessions are “just the beginning.” Whether legislators, taxpayers, and students/parents will come across with the money for even more diversity is an open question at this point. Bullet point 3 (“It’s not just Mizzou”) ends with “This is a time of change, and Mizzou is helping to lead the way.” So, the fall’s turmoil is recast as a positive development. How does this happen?

The document’s key rhetorical move is to cloak the fall protests with the moral mantle of earlier civil rights milestones (the admission of women and minority students to the university, for example), and essentially to claim the 2015 protesters as partners with the newly reconstituted university administration in a common quest. Hence, bullet point 2: “Students always have pushed us to be better.” Whether the protesters are interested in an alliance with the administration is unclear, to say the least. The list of demands of what seems to be the largest organized protest group on campus can be seen on the website thedemands.org Have a look and decide for yourself if this group is likely to be coopted.

The most disappointing feature of “The State of Mizzou” is bullet point 6: “We support civil liberties.” The first two sentences mention free speech and academic freedom, but are followed immediately by this: “Mizzou also follows a code of conduct and anti-discrimination rules, which prohibit harassment, threatening behaviors and abuse. Finding a balance between protecting First Amendment free-speech rights and protecting students from harassment can be tricky . . . .” Unfortunately Mizzou already has the poorest rating possible for protecting free speech rights, as measured by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. One is instantly reminded of the female professor (of communications! Tom Wolfe call your office!) who asked for “some muscle over here” to eject a journalist from one campus demonstration. This episode brings into question bullet point 5 (“We are committed to safety”), but the university does not say anything about it because of bullet point 9:  “Personnel matters are private.”

One must hope that Mizzou is not getting “revved up” to further limit student free speech rights and chill academic freedom.

Schools: University of Missouri – Columbia Cases: University of Missouri: Policing of “Hurtful” Speech