Universities throughout the United States have been recently besieged by a flurry of student demonstrations against causes ranging from unpopular speakers on campus to perceived unfairness against different identity groups. While such disturbances are nothing new to the U.S. higher education system, a system with a long and storied career of student activism, the tone, intensity and often the message of the new wave of activism is something that is largely unprecedented.
Mizzou looms large in every administrator’s mind
Recently, Nicholas Dirks, chancellor of University of California, Berkeley, wrote an op-ed where he attempted to clear the air and describe the travails he faces as an administrator who, on the one hand, is making every effort to protect the rights of students to speak and hear others speak but who also has a college to run, with a finite budget and real-world business considerations. Perhaps more than any other recent event, these episodes have brought into focus the challenging job that administrators face while running complex publicly funded organizations that nevertheless rely heavily on attracting the brightest students.
One event that has put things into stark relief for administrators facing potential student unrest is the case of the University of Missouri. In 2016, a liberal Mizzou professor was fired for speech that she believed was both protected and appropriate. Still, this was not enough for some Mizzou student activists. They created a huge uproar on campus, nearly leading to the cancellation of the entire football season. The melee drove a deluge of negative publicity about the school.
In addition to facing a million-dollar lawsuit filed by the former teacher, the University’s enrollment dropped by almost 30 percent the following semester. If Mizzou is unable to make up for that shortfall, the entire University could face bankruptcy within a few, short years. It is nightmare scenarios like this that keep college deans up at night.