Ask your grandparents or anybody who was on campus in the 1960s, kids, and they'll tell you university presidents and chancellors are not easily taken down by student protests. Yet that's exactly what happened this week at the University of Missouri. Unrest had been fomenting at the Columbia campus since the summer, much of it spurred by acts of racism, but it appears the coup de grace came from an unlikely source — members of the school's football team who vowed not to play again until President Timothy Wolfe stepped down.
At the very least, Mr. Wolfe showed an insufficient concern for the allegations of institutional oppression raised by the student protesters as well as specific incidents involving a Nazi swastika drawn in excrement two weeks ago and reports of racial epithets used by students at a school where blacks represent only about 7 percent of the student body. Given that Columbia is a mere 90 minute drive along Interstate 70 from Ferguson where the death of Michael Brown at the hands of a white police officer sparked considerable unrest (and which, among other things, helped spur Baltimore's own outrage over the subsequent death of Freddie Gray), one might have assumed that school officials would have taken the concerns of students far more seriously than they ultimately did. That lack of empathy for their own students proved costly.
Across the country, campus protests have been on the rise in recent years over a variety of issues, from sexual assaults and harassment to racial injustice and insensitivity, and they have produced some meaningful reforms. It's difficult to know precisely what triggered Mr. Wolfe's decision to resign or Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin's choice to step down from his post by year's end beyond the president's assertion that it "came from love" and because "we stopped listening to each other." But it's difficult to believe that the straw that broke this particular camel's back can't be traced to the announcement by African-American football players over the weekend that they intended to go on strike — a move supported by Coach Gary Pinkel, if only because he didn't want his team hopelessly divided by the campus unrest.
That exercise of clout may prove to have the most lasting impact. Had Missouri not fielded a football team this Saturday, the university would have been forced to pay its scheduled opponent, Brigham Young University, $1 million. Such are the big paydays generated by college football, particularly in the Southeastern Conference, the nation's dominant division in college football. A united football team might be the most powerful tool in the hands of students — its games not only generating tens of millions of dollars for schools and a time when state support is often shrinking but a key attraction for student recruitment and alumni giving. At many state schools, the football team is the public face of the university and the money it generates supports other athletic programs — a reality the University of Maryland discovered when a lack of season ticket sales four years ago triggered substantial cutbacks in sports.
That Mizzou has only one victory against five losses in conference play proved irrelevant given how big-time football programs get so much of their revenue from conference TV contracts. Still, what if a truly dominant program like Ohio State or Alabama became similarly embroiled? What might those striking players be capable of leveraging out of their schools? Permanent reforms to the NCAA? Compensation for players (as the NCAA has long resisted despite Northwestern University's football team's failed attempt to unionize)? Guaranteed scholarships? Or might those players find kinship with student protests over human rights issues like those that engulfed Missouri?
Conservatives will bemoan the turmoil at Missouri as an example of liberal sensitivity run amok, and we have to admit that some of the documented behavior — including the outrageous treatment of a student journalist by faculty member who should have known better than to call for "muscle" to roust him — has been cringeworthy. But such is the nature of the college years when intemperance (meaning a lack of moderation, not necessarily the quaffing of alcohol although both are possible) is as much a part of campus life as the mini-fridge and the laptop computer. The reawakening of political activism on campus is, in large measure, a welcome sign and might translate into greater student participation in the political process beyond those ivy walls.