Missouri Philosophy Issues Statement on Controversy over Racist Incidents (two updates)


The University of Missouri’s governing board is holding a meeting this morning to decide how to respond to calls by students and others for its president, Tim Wolfe, to resign. The calls for Wolfe’s resignation follow a number of racist incidents at the university over the past few months and are a response to the perceived lack of a satisfactory response to these incidents by the university administration. In addition, a student has launched a hunger strike, student group “Concerned Student 1950” started a boycott of the university’s services, and the football team has refused to play any games until Wolfe steps down or is removed.

A helpful timeline of events is here, and more generally The Missourian is a helpful source of information about events at the university.

The Department of Philosophy at the University of Missouri has issued the following statement on Facebook:

The Department of Philosophy recognizes and supports the Mizzou student activists who are advocating for institutional change at the University of Missouri. We are concerned about the mental and physical health of our students and their personal safety as this crisis continues. We stand ready to work with students, faculty, and administrators to create the institutional change needed.

An instructor in the department, meanwhile, writes in with a request to Daily Nous readers:

In light of the current protests at University of Missouri and Yale University related to the racial climate on campus, it is urgent for faculty and graduate instructors within and beyond these campuses to address these issues in class. Do the readers have any reading, writing, and/or discussion assignments or activities to suggest?

Suggestion and comments welcome.

University Missouri

UPDATE: Tim Wolfe has resigned.

UPDATE 2: Stephanie Hull, a graduate student at the University of Missouri, passes along a message (in a comment below) from the philosophy graduate students there:

The Graduate Students of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Missouri stand in solidarity with campus student activists. We have been dealing with a number of issues on our campus that have impacted each of us personally and professionally. It has impacted ourselves, our colleagues and our friends. But, we feel optimistic about the current and coming changes. These changes are, in large part, due to the hard work, dedication, and bravery of committed individuals and organizations. We are proud of our peers and proud of our community. We look forward to working with undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty, university staff, and administrators to create lasting institutional change.

Ms. Hull also reports that the chancellor of the university will be stepping down in January.

guest
27 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Julinna
Julinna
5 years ago

Although it’s an old article, Peggy McIntosh’s “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” is a great way for 101 students to begin thinking about different vectors of privilege/oppression. It’s short, and you can have students come up with their own lists. In the current climate, you’d need to be super careful when discussing this essay. Writings by Michelle Alexander and Angela Davis are accessible to undergrads, and Larry Blum’s “Three Kinds of Race-Related Solidarity” might also be constructive right now, especially in light of the hunger strike.

Students often look for leadership from their professors in times of crisis, and I’ve found that just talking about it in class, and helping students to process their experiences is important. Collaborating with other departments to organize a teach-in would also be great.Report

Timothy
5 years ago

In my first year at the University of Mississippi, there were incidents on campus that received national attention (some connected to protests of President Obama’s election) and other incidents that did not. One morning there were reports of a student’s property being vandalized with a racial slur. I cancelled the scheduled intro to philosophy class and said I would have a discussion about these matters with those who chose to stay. It was optional so as to ensure that students who were or felt especially vulnerable were not required to confront this unexpectedly in a situation in which they were not ready to do so. (As an early morning class, there was no way to be sure what students knew or whether the early reports of the newest incident would be confirmed.) This also of course meant that many who might most benefit from such a discussion could leave. Most students left. Because there was not time to assign readings, the discussion was free-form, but I remember talking about the bell hooks essay “Killing Rage” which (a few years earlier) had a large impact on how I think about bystanders and complicity. A complicating factor was that as someone new to the university, I was less knowledgeable about my students and less sure of how to navigate such a discussion. I might handle it somewhat differently now. One change that I have made is to my syllabus; I now bring up issues of discrimination, difference, and oppression early in my introductory philosophy classes so that there will be an established precedent for talking about issues and thus potentially aid a later discussion. A colleague also began organizing a conference (for one year out) to demonstrate one of the many ways that philosophers and others can contribute to understanding and confronting racism. Conference poster here: https://sites.google.com/site/raciallanguagesymposium/Report

Karen
Karen
5 years ago

María Lugones’ “Playfulness, ‘World’-Traveling, and Loving Perception” and Charles Mills’ “White Ignorance” papers are excellent in helping undergrads navigate the epistemology of racial conflict on campus. They are helpful in discussions of why some people on campus don’t understand (or don’t want to know) why others are angry, hurt, and demanding change.Report

Michael Kremer
Michael Kremer
5 years ago

BBC is reporting Wolfe has resigned.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
5 years ago

I question whether there really is such an urgent need for individual professors to deviate from their lesson plans and devote class time to these issues. Yes, if you are teaching a class in ethics or political philosophy or some other area with obvious connections to the issues, by all means invite the students to connect the dots. But I don’t think students’ interests are being served by inserting a discussion of recent events into a class that is not otherwise connected to these issues.

I’m not surprised that in the story related above, most students decided to simply leave the class when the instructor decided to have such a discussion. I know well meaning (white) liberal professors really want to do something immediately to show that they stand against racism and injustice, but I think it is wise to try and separate responses that are genuinely helpful to students and responses that make individual faculty member feel good.

Organize a teach in. Include faculty from other units. Work with student organizations to get the word out. And include some discussions of criticisms of standpoint epistemology, as well as defenses of it.Report

anon'
anon'
5 years ago

“Wolfe said at a press conference announcing his resignation that his decision ‘comes from love.’ ‘The frustration and anger that I see is clear, real, and I don’t doubt it for a second,’ he said. ‘I take full responsibility for this frustration. I take full responsibly for the inaction that has occurred. I’d ask everybody, from students and faculty and friends, to use my resignations to heal and start talking again, to make the changes necessary.'”

Classy comments on his way out. It’s unfortunate he hadn’t previously demonstrated this capacity for insight and humility.Report

Matt LaVine
Matt LaVine
5 years ago

In response to Professor Plum– I’m not sure that I agree it’s a problem to deal with urgent issues that aren’t closely connected to one’s course. Much more importantly, though, it seems to me that almost any philosophy class IS AND OUGHT TO BE closely connected to issues of racial and social justice. Logic courses deal with consistency and hasty generalization. These are extremely connected to hypocrisy and prejudice. Philosophy of language courses deal with the logic of conversation, which is very useful for sorting out the problems with e.g. saying ‘all lives matter’ in response to ‘black lives matter’. Philosophy of language courses also deal with speech act theory, which is very useful for understanding discursive injustice. Metaphysics courses deal with natural kinds and social constructions, which can be helpful for understanding the metaphysics of race. Epistemology courses can talk about epistemic injustice, etc.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
Reply to  Matt LaVine
5 years ago

Well, as a value theorist committed to social justice I’m inclined to agree with a version of your point: there are many opportunities to discuss values in a class on the philosophy of science or epistemology or the philosophy of art. And it is more than a little troubling that most philosophers seem utterly unfamiliar with canonical texts on these matters. But I baulk at the strong version of your claim; not every course I teach needs to provide a basis for a philosophical discussion of racism or other forms of injustice.

I think we agree that there is a deeper problem here: too many philosophers only think to discuss issues of injustice when there is a high profile case in the news or on campus. And very often these are the very worst times to have productive philosophical conversations.Report

Andrew Sepielli
Andrew Sepielli
Reply to  Matt LaVine
5 years ago

Apologies for slightly derailing the thread, and apologies to Matt if I’m misinterpreting his position, but I just wanted to say: Whether the philosophy of language, metaphysics, and epistemology are capable of contributing helpfully to discussions of justice in the ways Matt suggests turns on substantive questions in *moral and political* philosophy. This is not to say that courses in the philosophy of language, etc. shouldn’t address questions of justice. But to give one’s students the impression these fields are *obviously* useful in tackling such questions is, I think, to sell them a bill of goods.Report

anon
anon
5 years ago

Does anyone closer to the situation than I am know what Wolfe actually did here (or failed to do that he should have done) to prompt the calls for his resignation? In all the articles I’ve read, all I’ve seen is that his reactions to the racist events was ‘perceived to be insufficient’, but no specifics on what those reactions were or what the people calling for his resignation wanted him to have done instead.Report

anon'
anon'
Reply to  anon
5 years ago

Wolfe’s own resignation statement acknowledges that his actions were insufficient, not merely that they were “perceived” to be so (e.g., “I take full responsibility for the inaction that has occurred”). He forcefully rejected the standard non-apology route.

It’s not hard to read around to get a better sense of why Wolfe’s actions were insufficient and what his critics were calling for prior to seeking his resignation. To his considerable credit, he’s not now acting confused or playing the victim. We can reasonably assume that he and his critics know what they’re talking about. Skeptics might take Wolfe’s lead by acknowledging that there are serious problems and moving on with a view “to make the changes necessary.”Report

anon
anon
Reply to  anon'
5 years ago

My post wasn’t intended to be an expression of skepticism; it’s a genuine question.

The language of ‘perceived insufficiency’ that I used is just taken from Justin’s post above (and from the other articles I’ve read.)Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  anon'
5 years ago

Sorry, but I don’t think we “can reasonably assume that he and his critics know what they’re talking about”. Unfortunately people sometimes have to apologize and otherwise eat crow just to keep the crowd at bay. There are pretty compelling arguments that there was never a problem with Toyota gas pedals, but Toyota eventually decided that shelling out $2billion was cheaper/better than trying to convince the public of that. The reception on pretty much every phone is affected by how you hold it, but Apple decided to pay out roughly $175 million was cheaper/better than trying to convince the public that there wasn’t a special problem with the iPhone 4. Anyhow, I’m not saying that Wolfe didn’t do something seriously wrong…indeed, perhaps what he did that was seriously wrong was simply to let the situation spiral out of control as it did.Report

anon'
anon'
Reply to  JDRox
5 years ago

No need to apologize. Wolfe isn’t a business, so he has no product to continue selling; and he resigned, so he had no pressing motivation “to apologize and otherwise eat crow.” Nonetheless, for whatever reasons, you’d rather speculate about why his words might not have been sincere — though he simply could have resigned while taking no responsibility for anything other than being misunderstood, or being sorry if some people were offended, or no longer being able to lead effectively.

Wolfe claims to “take full responsibility for the inaction that has occurred.” Taking him at his word continues to seem reasonable to me, and I’m impressed by his uncommon dignity in response to self-professed failure. While I don’t know what is supposed to be at stake in making a point of doubting his sincerity, I’m going to bow out at this point.Report

Anon.
Reply to  anon'
5 years ago

I’m new to this discussion, and I for one was not doubting his sincerity— it’s just hard to find sources documenting what, specifically, he is sincerely sorry about. I’m guessing the local media in and around Columbia has followed this more thoroughly, but for those who haven’t been following until the last couple days, it has been hard to piece together a good timeline of relevant events, which incidents he had a problematic response to, and how he mishandled them. If anyone has a link to a helpful, detailed summary, that would be very welcome.Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  anon'
5 years ago

The fact that people often give insincere apologies is hardly speculation, nor is the fact that there can be strong motivations to do so. I’m not arguing that the apology in this case was insincere, but I, like Anon, am interested in what specifically Wolfe did to bring all this about. Obviously he didn’t perpetrate any of the racist incidents–I take it that people are mad because he didn’t respond in a satisfying way to those incidents. He apologizes for his “inaction”, but he *did* act in response. His response just wasn’t enough. But he doesn’t say what action he should have taken. This is all very cloudy from the reports I’ve read. It would be nice if there was a nice clean statement of the form ‘Wolfe should have done X in response to incident Y, and he didn’t, and failing to do X makes him not qualified to hold his position’.Report

Alan Richardson
5 years ago

A colleague of mine at UBC (Amy Metcalfe in Education) has gathered some teaching and research resources on this matter here: http://blogs.ubc.ca/difficultknowledge/missouri/Report

Stephanie Hull
Stephanie Hull
5 years ago

Hi all, I’m a graduate student at Mizzou. Two things to add. First, as of about an hour ago, it was announced that the Chancellor is also (more or less) stepping down from his post—effective Jan 1, he’s going to transition into some sort of new position involving research at the university. It’s pretty vague what that is at the moment.

Second, the graduate students of the Department of Philosophy would like to share the following statement (Justin, perhaps you could add it as an update to the post):
The Graduate Students of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Missouri stand in solidarity with campus student activists. We have been dealing with a number of issues on our campus that have impacted each of us personally and professionally. It has impacted ourselves, our colleagues and our friends. But, we feel optimistic about the current and coming changes. These changes are, in large part, due to the hard work, dedication, and bravery of committed individuals and organizations. We are proud of our peers and proud of our community. We look forward to working with undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty, university staff, and administrators to create lasting institutional change.Report

M.G. Piety
5 years ago

Thanks for this. It’s good to see philosophers standing up for what’s right!Report

Just a Guy
Just a Guy
5 years ago

As a white male, I do not teach a section on race in my intro class. I teach at a mostly minority institution. I don’t feel qualified to talk about race, and some have also suggested that it would be offensive and uncouth if I even tried to do so, given my epistemic situation as a white male that prevents me from “knowing” what it’s like to be a member of a marginalized group. I’m not sure what I think of those claims myself, but I certainly would not be comfortable lecturing or even leading a discussion with mostly minority students about these issues. Maybe one day. But this day, it seems like there is far more potential for me to do harm or offend someone than there is for me to do any good.Report

Karen
Karen
Reply to  Just a Guy
5 years ago

Just a Guy, I appreciate your nervousness, but think it’s still worth thinking about how you could incorporate these issues carefully. At a minimum, framing the discussion with opening words like what you wrote above is helpful. In my experience, students really appreciate it when we acknowledge where we’re *not* the experts, and where we want everyone to learn from each other. You could also ask someone from a relevant office or department to co-facilitate with you, and some of the readings above (esp. Macintosh) would be good material to start the discussion (or even assigning a short writing assignment, so you don’t have to worry about some of the chaos that can happen in a charged discussion). But I think just keeping silent has its own dangers; it might suggest to students that you don’t care about the issue, or don’t see it as relevant.Report

Roxanne
Roxanne
5 years ago

Alison Bailey’s chapter on White Talk in Yancy’s collection struck me today as hugely relevant to both explaining the administration’s failure to respond appropriately to racism at Mizzou, as well as the horrific response by white people using White Talk to defend Wolfe, in a way that helps block standard moves to shut down white privilege discourse. It’s brief, accessible, and the whole chapter shows up in GoogleBooks right now.Report

Matt in VA
Matt in VA
5 years ago

In the philosophy of science, truth is the ultimate goal. The pursuit of this goal takes place through hopefully objective experimentation and observation.

Applying this philosophy to the University of Missouri situation reveals a starkly contrasting picture to that painted by the philosophy department. There is no evidence of any fecal swastika, and given the prevalence of photographic implements on cell phones, such lack of evidence indicates with a high probability that the odiferous symbol never happened. Further, an objective observation indicates the starving student complaining of white privilege is heir to a $20M fortune.

The long litany of faked hate crimes requires that any new claims of hate crimes should have an objective basis. Reason indicates that such claims should have observable evidence. Otherwise, the most likely result is that the incident is a hoax. Shouldn’t such objective analysis be discussed when considering the philosophy of race relations? – Oh, and I am African American.Report