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MU Administrative Crisis In Columbia Provokes Reflection, Action At UMKC

Laura Ziegler

The first few days of this week brought the resignation of both the University of Missouri President, Tim Wolfe, and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin in Columbia — and those events left staff and students at the University of Missouri-Kansas City asking questions about the racial climate on their campus.

Rakeem Golden, president of UMKC’s African American Student Union and Vice President of theMulti-Cultural Office of Student Affairs, invited members of the Columbia student activist group, Concerned Student 1950, to Kansas City last Friday. Wolfe was attending an event downtown where students confronted him and fired questions about racism and racial tensions at the MU.

His clunky response was widely circulated on social media.

Students heard Wolfe’s response as a reflection of the tone-deaf university administration in Columbia.

Golden says the overall racial environment on the UMKC campus is different.

“What was happening at the University of Missouri-Columbia is that their racism was more blunt,” Golden says. “The things that were happening there were more open, more systematically obvious.”

Golden says officials at UMKC have been more deliberate about supporting people of color.

An outside study in 2006 found problems in academic advising, student-faculty relationships and what it called a “low culture of expectations” for students of color. Overall, the study concluded among racial groups, African American students were most dissatisfied with their cultural experience at UMKC.

Today things are different.

There is a Division of Diversity and Inclusion. The African American Student Union and the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs have seats on governing committees. Top administrators, including the chancellor, are African American.

But Golden says students of color can still feel marginalized and underserved.

“The new phrase: 'anonymous racism.' You don’t know where it’s coming from or how it’s coming but it’s there,” he says.

In the UMKC Student Center Tuesday, most students were reluctant to talk about the issue.

Jake Swaney, a white student about to give a campus tour, said he’d never noticed any racial tension.

Two African American students eating breakfast in the café saw things differently.

Jessica Moore said she feels completely comfortable here as an African American but there are some underlying issues. Her friend Kelsey Hart says she notices subtle forms of favoritism in the classroom.

“There’s certain rules set for different assignments and someone may have not followed the exact rules and they got let off the hook,” she says. “But if a different student did it, they may have gotten a complete zero on it."

Credit Courtesy / Hope Austin
Hope Austin
Hope Austin, editor of the University News, says the UMKC racial culture is better than in Columbia, but problems persist.

Editor of UMKC's University News,  Hope Austin, also points to the classroom. “The faculty is not as diverse as the students are and that creates a lot of barriers,” she says. “I’m in the English department and I see no black faculty … pretty much all white."

UMKC Chancellor Leo Morton, speaking on KCUR’sUp To Date, told host Steve Kraske he knew the university wasn’t immune to racial problems. With a student body almost evenly divided between whites and people of color, and in the heart of an urban metropolis, he said he was hoping to learn from what happened in Columbia.

“Someone once said you shouldn’t waste a crisis — those events that cause us to advance," he said. “And we need to make sure when we look back on this time a year from now we can declare we have made a difference and we’re better for it.”

That work starts Wednesday morning when the Chancellor will join Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer for an town hall for students, faculty and staff in the UMKC Student Union.

KCUR is licensed to the University of Missouri Board of Curators and is an editorially independent community service of the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Laura Ziegler is the community engagement reporter and producer and can be reached @laurazig.

I partner with communities to uncover the ignored or misrepresented stories by listening and letting communities help identify and shape a narrative. My work brings new voices, sounds, and an authentic sense of place to our coverage of the Kansas City region. My goal is to tell stories on the radio, online, on social media and through face to face conversations that enhance civic dialogue and provide solutions.
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