In the maelstrom of the 2018 news cycles, a short report out of the State of Missouri attracted virtually no national attention. For the first time since 2015, the University of Missouri posted an actual increase in freshman enrollment — 4,696 students started their college life at Mizzou, up from 4,134 the year before. To be sure, total enrollment was still down by 5 percent since 2015, but for the first time in three years, the state’s flagship university could make the case that it was primed for a comeback.
Most readers probably think: A comeback from what? After all, given the speed of the Trump-driven news cycle, 2015 feels like ancient history. When pressed, even the most politically obsessed might remember only the most basic details about a controversy at Mizzou — something about a football boycott. Oh, yes, and a viral video.
The world has moved on, but the University of Missouri has not.
It’s worth returning for a moment to the fall of 2015. It’s worth pondering the lessons of arguably the most consequential campus protests since the Vietnam era. A flagship public university of a red state capitulated to unreasonable, far-left demands, and it paid a terrible price. When the social-justice warriors of Mizzou inflicted that pain, they did more to limit their influence in red America than the combined efforts of a generation of conservative writers sounding the alarm over campus intolerance.
The Mizzou controversy began like most campus controversies, with a level of anger that was incommensurate to the stakes of the dispute. A political battle that dominated headlines across the United States began with a cut to health benefits for graduate-student employees, a Facebook report from the student-association president that unknown individuals riding in a pickup truck had shouted racial slurs at him, and another shouted slur from a drunken man heckling an anti-racism rally.
Taken together, the incidents were minor. In fact, the pickup-truck episode couldn’t even be tied to on-campus wrongdoers. But as so often happens, the incidents served as the spark that landed on dry kindling. A new generation of students brought up in the language of microaggressions and trained to believe that universities should serve as idyllic “safe spaces” decided that they were going to confront the administration and that they were going to win.
They started with the common tactics. There was a sit-in on October 6. The university responded with a common capitulation: It expanded mandatory freshman diversity training to include all students, faculty, and staff.
But diversity training wasn’t enough. Unsatisfied, protesters interrupted the homecoming parade and were incensed when university-system president Tim Wolfe wouldn’t get out of his car to “dialogue” with angry students.
The university capitulated again. Wolfe apologized, and four days later he restored the lost health benefits.
It still wasn’t enough. Students pressed their advantage. This time they demanded Wolfe’s resignation. The system president had to go.
What happened next was bizarre. The campus was roiled by an utterly inexplicable and still-unsolved “hate” incident: Someone scrawled a swastika in feces on a dorm-bathroom wall. This was proof positive of the hostile racial climate, a climate that Wolfe could not fix.
So it was time for the age-old tactic of oppressed dissidents everywhere. On November 2, a graduate student named Jonathan Butler launched a hunger strike. But even a hunger strike only raises an eyebrow. After all, did anyone really believe Butler would commit suicide over an obscure campus controversy?
Far more consequential was a decision made by the Missouri football team. On November 7, its black players announced that they would boycott a pivotal game with Brigham Young University if Wolfe didn’t resign. By the next day, the rest of the team had joined them. No resignation, no game.
It’s difficult to adequately describe the ecstasy of sports media at that moment. ESPN dedicated enormous resources to covering the story. This was heroism. This was the perfect example of athletes’ “using their platform” to push for social change. And the athletes got results. On November 9, Wolfe resigned. Soon after, Mizzou chancellor Bowen Loftin resigned as well. The victory was complete. The student activists had won.
But something else happened on November 9. At the same time that football fans across the United States were wondering why the SEC was held hostage to complaints about a “poop swastika,” they also became acquainted with a Mizzou professor named Melissa Click. In a viral video, she was shown aiding and abetting radical students in physically pushing journalists away from the student protests. “I need some muscle over here,” she famously said.
Two things happened at once. On the one hand, the Missouri protests galvanized a national movement. On campuses across the United States, student protesters were energized. They issued demands, collected scalps, and introduced the new lingo of “woke” protests to a country that was just beginning to understand the depth of leftist commitment to intersectionality and identity politics.
On the other hand, students began to vote with their feet, and they stampeded away from the University of Missouri. The 2015 freshman class at Mizzou was immense: Almost 6,200 first-year students flocked to the campus. In 2016 that number dropped to 4,770, and in 2017 it dropped again, to 4,134.
And that wasn’t the only consequence. Donations plummeted. The university cut more than 400 jobs and closed seven dorms. Black and white enrollment dropped, with black enrollment declining by a staggering 42 percent and white enrollment dropping by 21 percent. It turns out that when you describe your university as a racist hellhole, fewer black students want to enroll.
Missouri’s activists may have won their battle, but they lost the war. They flexed their campus muscles, but in so doing they demonstrated to the wider world that they were unreasonable and totalitarian.
University activism depends on a degree of public indifference. So long as campus protests remain confined to the campus environment, the protesters have an immense amount of leverage. Progressive administrators or professors are terrified of being labeled insensitive or — God forbid — racist. They will capitulate time and again.
But if and when university controversies penetrate the public consciousness, then — to paraphrase Alan Charles Kors, co-founder of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education — radical activists find that they cannot justify in public the things they do in the relative privacy of the university quad. They look radical. They look strange. Sometimes, they even look silly.
It’s no coincidence that the Missouri protests ushered in a golden age of campus-free-speech legislation. Since the protest, Arizona, Virginia, Colorado, Utah, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Wisconsin have passed different forms of it. Bills are pending or have been introduced in multiple other states. Hundreds of thousands of students are now formally protected by state laws that supplement standard constitutional protections.
But the legal reforms pale in comparison with the cultural change. For years, major public universities (especially in the South) escaped meaningful public oversight in part by carefully cultivating a sense of timelessness. Alumni could come back to their alma maters and watch the time-honored traditions that marked their own college years. The football rituals were the same. The buildings were the same. To walk back onto campus was to conjure up the best memories of your life.
But the Mizzou controversy disrupted that narrative. Suddenly, millions of Americans who couldn’t care less about campus politics realized that the universities were losing their moorings. These Americans may not have had the power to achieve real reform, but they could choose to attend different schools. They could shun the university that was the symbol of campus dysfunction.
Talk to a Republican legislator in a red state, particularly in the South, and you’ll hear a deep commitment to liberty in higher education. Or, failing that, you’ll notice a deep commitment to keeping the legislator’s state and its flagship university from becoming a national laughingstock. And that commitment extends beyond elected officials.
Not long ago, my oldest daughter enrolled in the University of Tennessee. At parent orientation, a university official explained, of course, that the school was committed to diversity. But parents wanted to hear something else. They wanted to hear about free speech and due process. The concern for the ideological corruption of higher education had at long last migrated from the conservative elite to conservative parents, and they wanted to make sure that their children enjoyed a different kind of “safe space” — one where they were safe to express their opinion without fear of sanction and censorship.
The flagship state university is the textbook example of an institution that the culture has deemed too big (or important) to fail. It represents a state. It connects students with history and tradition. At its best, it can bind a diverse community together. But when the student activists at Mizzou reached too far, they threatened each of these ideals. When they threatened football, they threatened a community ritual.
And for what? Not for racial justice. Before and after the protests, Mizzou was a progressive institution committed to racial equality. Before and after the protests, it bent over backwards to increase student and faculty diversity. No, this battle was about power. It was about modern conceptions of social justice that are deeply illiberal, and the campus Left flexed its muscles without regard to the consequences.
The university has paid the price. It is still paying the price. And it is teaching Americans an important lesson: Short-term victory can quickly transition into long-term defeat, and, at least in red states, there is no meaningful constituency for radical intersectionality or for campus intolerance and campus censorship. In fact, if you want to defeat the campus Left, sometimes they need to win — at least for a time. The public needs to see the world they want to make.