The following post is a reflection on events that happened over four years ago. Although there are many more relevant (and damning) details that a thorough fact-checking would turn up, I wanted to quickly write down my initial reaction to the The Chronicle‘s recent article.
The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on a forthcoming article in the Kentucky Law Journal that provides new analysis of the 2015 upheavals at my alma mater, the University of Missouri, and the resulting damage to the University’s reputation.
The author, Ben Trachtenberg, argues that key factors that made the fallout particularly devastating was in-fighting at upper levels of administration and their failure to respond to student concerns in a timely manner. In support of Trachtenberg’s argument, I want to offer my experience as a student activist at the University of Missouri during 2010 to 2014, the years leading up to the events Trachtenberg analyzes.
During these years, I was an MA/PhD student in the English program, specializing in rhetoric and composition. During this time, I also gave birth to two children (2009 and 2012) who were both lucky enough to get spots at the on-campus daycare for children of students. In 2010 I was one of three students who formed a student group for parenting students. While our general goal was to provide mutual support and advocacy for our fellow-parenting students, our specific goal was to keep the daycare open.
There was a constant, low-level threat to close the 40-year-old center that provided childcare to approximately 50 children at competitive (but not at all bargain) rates. In fact, one month of full-time care was enough to wipe out the average grad student’s monthly stipend, so many parenting students were paying for these services with student loans. The center was far from perfect. Administration expected it to run on a shoe-string budget, and the lack of investment in curriculum and support for the teachers was blatantly obvious. Although there was some diversity, there was also a general sense that spots tended not to open up for students of color as quickly as they did for white students.
Still, the center was on-campus which made it substantially more convenient than most other options, especially for international students who often lacked transportation options. The teachers demonstrated a meaningful attachment and care for the children. Even though the educational component left much to be desired, the teachers’ warmth and affection for the children ultimately outweighed my concerns. After a day of teaching, grading, dissertation-writing, or assisting at the Campus Writing Program, I would pick up my thriving daughter and son, and we would walk the half mile home to eat whatever I had tossed in the Crock-Pot that morning.
As the fees increased over the years amid declining interest on the part of the university to invest in the staff and children, our student group reached out to graduate student organizations, the Black Student Union, the Student Government Association, and an assortment of deans and administrators to raise awareness and support for the daycare. Everyone agreed it was a valuable and worthwhile cause, but it was impossible to find anyone on campus who could actually do anything about it. An administrator responsible for the Center would say his hands were tied by his supervisor’s priorities, and when we met with his supervisor, she would say that she was simply making decisions based on the information she had been given by him. The administrator responsible for the daycare’s budget had been heard to say that parenting students belonged at community college instead of Mizzou.
The perpetual run-around finally came to a head early in the spring semester of 2014 when a 2nd-story concrete deck at the apartment complex where the daycare was located collapsed. A firefighter who responded to the emergency call was killed by a falling slab of concrete. Although the University had ignored earlier reports that warned of the possibility of the aging buildings’ collapse, this incident prompted them to immediately shore up the remaining decks, including that of the building where the daycare was housed.
For weeks afterward there was much discussion about what would happen to the aging apartment complex. In post-war years since the apartments had been built, the area had been declared a flood-plain, making demolition and rebuilding impossible we were told. Our student group, headed up by mostly white students relatively new to activism and nervous about making the wrong move, recognized this was the opportunity certain members of administration had been anticipating for years–the closure of the daycare. So we circulated a petition online and on campus. We wrote a carefully worded email to our professors, politely asking for their support if they didn’t mind please. We spoke to reporters about how critical the daycare was to our academic success.
We also requested a meeting with R. Bowen Loftin, the Chancellor who would eventually be forced to resign. In the meeting, we made our painstakingly worded case for rebuilding the daycare in an new location on campus. Once more we heard conciliatory administrator-speak from the Chancellor as he regaled us with his own experiences in graduate school and spoke of all the obstacles to re-opening the daycare. The biggest one, of course, was that there was no funding available because, he said, funders specify how they want their donations spent. When I asked why we couldn’t look for a funder who would be interested in sponsoring a new daycare, he looked at me as if I had just suggested we rob a bank. “We can’t do that!” he said, inexplicably horrified.
Finally, he described a similar situation at his previous institution where he had ordered the razing of an aging apartment complex much to the dismay of students who found themselves suddenly displaced. “They demonstrated, they even burned me in effigy,” he bragged. “But ultimately, we did what we were gonna do.”
In retrospect, we realized that we were talking to a brick wall. At the highest level, the University did not care about the needs of parenting students and although the Chancellor wouldn’t tell us what his plans were, he was sending a message that he had no intention of hearing us either.
Over the remainder of the semester, the University demurred, not making a commitment one way or the other. This refusal to commit made it difficult for our group to engage people effectively. We would spend our lunch breaks at Speaker’s Circle, asking people to sign our petition to rebuild. “Of course the University will rebuild the daycare,” people would say as they declined to sign, looking at us as if we were paranoid freaks.
Brilliantly, the University finally announced its position on a Friday in May, the day before graduation. I was buying a pair of shoes when a friend called to tell me about the announcement. By then, people had either left campus for summer break or were consumed with finals grading or graduation. The decision was a “no” presented as a “yes.” The University stated that it would accept bids from private companies to build and run a private daycare on campus. Translated, the University was offering land to a private entity to come to campus and make a profit off of students. Of course, as anyone knows, childcare is not a lucrative business in our capitalist system, and the bids surely did not come pouring in. As far as I know, the daycare was never spoken of again.
That weekend at graduation, we were spoken down to by Chancellor Loftin one last time. I crossed the stage with my empty diploma protector grateful to have completed my PhD on schedule and landed a coveted tenure-track job, but dismayed at my failure to be an effective activist.
But what I had learned, in addition to my formal education, was that fighting a system through approved channels was a recipe for failure. The system was set up to be resistance-proof. Taking a stance of deferential civility, recognizing the authority of our elders, and asking nicely for crumbs got us NOTHING.
But that’s not really the point I want to make here.
One of the students at the meeting with the Chancellor that day would later be at the center of Concerned Student 1950, the group that led the 2015 protest about the Administration’s refusal to address the persistent undercurrent of racism on campus. I don’t know what all she took away from that meeting, but I do know that she witnessed first-hand the utter uselessness of our approach. Watching the reports roll in from the distance of my new job in a different state, I cheered Concerned Student 1950 on.
They knew what they were up against, and they knew what wouldn’t work. So they tried a different approach and won.*
*In a manner of speaking. Of course, there is still much, much more work to do.