In Columbia, Missouri, in 2015, students put on the protest of the century – or at least that is how it seemed.
The funny thing about this protest is that it didn’t have any great meaning or purpose. This wasn’t the Vietnam War or ERA. It began with a complaint about cuts to health benefits for graduate-student employees. The student body president at the time, who is black and gay, stated that someone off-campus shouted racial slurs at him. There was a report of another racial slur at an anti-racism rally. And then there was the famous “poop swastika,” where someone supposedly drew a swastika on a bathroom wall in feces.
There was a sit-in, which led to the first round of capitulation. The university agreed to robust diversity training. When that didn’t go far enough, the president of the university system, Tom Wolfe, apologized and health benefits for the graduate student employees were restored. Still not enough to satisfy the hunger of the social justice crowd on campus. Wolfe had to go.
Then there was a hunger strike, led by a student named Jonathan Butler. None of this served to get any real traction or generate national attention. But then the authoritarian mob found a powerful ally: Members of the entire football team announced they were boycotting the next football game if Wolfe didn’t resign.
Under the pressure of national embarrassment and with the leverage of high-profile athletes, Wolfe resigned. Chancellor Bowen Loftin resigned as well. In order to relieve the pressure, the university completely capitulated in a desperate attempt to satiate the demands of the mob. After making the ultimate sacrifice of the system president and its chancellor, everything at Missouri returned to normal, right? Not exactly.
The protesters' tent city remained. And a new era of “wokeness” was ushered in and ESPN became a network for social justice warriors. A professor, Melissa Click, became famous for pushing away journalists trying to cover the story, at one point, yelling, “I’m going to need some muscle in here.”
Columbia, Missouri isn’t exactly Berkeley, Palo Alto, or Madison. After all of the accommodation and sacrificing of public figures to make peace with the social justice mob, a funny thing happened. People began to vote with their feet. Enrollment plummeted. The year the protests began, Missouri had a freshman class of 6,200. The following year, it was down to less than 4,800. And the year after, just 4,100 enrolled in the freshman class. And alumni not only stopped enrolling their children, they also quit giving.
As budgets depleted, more than 400 jobs were cut and several dorms were closed. At one point, dorms were even converted to motel rooms for visitors in town for sporting events.
The protesters may have claimed victory at the University of Missouri, but the school lost. Perhaps this was a warning sign.
It will be interesting to see how universities respond in the future, particularly those in the South. At the University of Mississippi, the largest university in the state where I live and work and my alma mater, protesters known as the Students Against Social Injustice recently staged a protest. They followed the now-common practice of issuing demands of the university.
According to SASI, the university must remove a Confederate statue from campus and speech codes must be implemented to “protect students from the racist violence we experience on campus.” This is similar to what students have been doing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for the past year, though to the credit of the protesters at Ole Miss, they didn’t actually attempt to tear down the statue. At least not yet.
The real issue isn’t the protests or the protesters themselves. Actual intellectual debate should be encouraged on college campuses. Diverse opinions should be tolerated, whether those opinions are popular or not. The issue is how university leadership responds. Schools must not be run by authoritarian mobs. If university administrations continue to buckle under the weight of social justice mobs, they may suffer the same consequences as the University of Missouri.
This column appeared in the Washington Examiner on November 5, 2018.