Internal Emails Show Safety Fears Were Rampant During Missouri Protests

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By Jillian Kay Melchior | 10:57 pm, April 19, 2016

Just days after protesters successfully toppled the University of Missouri’s president and chancellor last fall, a white student forwarded her professor a disturbing tweet. “#Mizzou black students need to stop protesting and start killing,” it said. “The white supremacy made it clear they aint hearing it.”

The ominous tweet had already received 16 retweets and 3 likes. The professor forwarded the message onto interim administration and the university’s police, adding that he was unsure whether the person who had sent the tweet was a student. But, he wrote, his student was scared to come to class.

More: Missouri Student Protestors Demanded Generators, a Fire Pit

To understand what was going on behind the scenes as the University of Missouri  was rocked by protests during October and November of 2015, Heat Street and National Review requested access to email correspondence from key leaders at the school. The request yielded 7,400 pages of records.

News coverage at the time focused on black students’ claims of pervasive racism, pointing to several troublesome incidents as evidence of a bigoted culture on campus. But a look at the email correspondence of the university’s administrators and faculty members during the crisis reveals another side of the unrest: how protesters’ belligerence left many students, faculty and parents fearful of violence and concerned for their safety.

Here is some of what we found:

A University of Missouri professor said his student forwarded him this disturbing tweet, making her fearful to come to class. This Twitter account’s tweets are protected, and no one responded to our tweeted requests for comment.
A University of Missouri professor said his student forwarded him this disturbing tweet, making her fearful to come to class. This Twitter account’s tweets are protected, and no one responded to our tweeted requests for comment.

On Oct. 7, as the protests had started to pick up steam, a student wrote to the chancellor describing her encounter with a group of Black Lives Matter supporters.

“Everyone has freedom of speech and expression,” she wrote, “but this was a large group of people. I know I’m not alone in saying that I felt very unsafe and targeted when I encountered them,” describing “people screaming at me from the sidewalk.” She wrote that “all lives matter and discrimination should be fought against,” but she feared “that group brought more division, hostility and discrimination than that one man [yelling racial slurs] could have.”

An Oct. 19 meeting between the university’s president and some of the protestors includes a daunting bullet point among its “key takeaways”: “#concernedstudent1950 group is more interested in the fight than the solution and are deeper into changing the culture than policy.”

On Nov. 9, the vice president for human resources, Betsy Rodriguez, wrote to Missouri’s president, Tim Wolfe, saying that she thought he needed to see some videos being circulated on Twitter under the hash tag #ConcernedStudent1950.

One video shows a protestor singling out people on campus, shouting, “If you’re uncomfortable, I did my job.” In the background, other protestors shout “power,” raising their fists.

“There are at least 2 [such Twitter videos] from Griffiths society today, and 2 from the dining halls (one of those – Plaza 900) included visiting high school students,” Rodriguez wrote. “The protestors are increasing in aggression and disruption. These are pretty scarey [sic].”

A conversation later that day between Rodriguez and Michael Kateman, the university’s director of internal communications, raised other “collective thoughts” on the protestors’ behavior.

“Even students not involved in the protests are getting agitated, fearful and concerned,” their notes say, pointing out an incident where outsiders drove two hours to join the protests on the University of Missouri’s campus. “The protestors are willing to interrupt non-related events to protest. …. Our concern is that the longer we wait to have mtg [to address the situation], the more we risk violence. The longer we wait, the greater the risk of violence.”

During the protests, graduate student Jonathan Butler launched a hunger strike demanding the resignation of Wolfe, the university president. On the fourth day of the strike, a student wrote to the chancellor offering to help in any way possible.

The student, whose gender and race is unclear in the partially redacted email, wrote about neither condemning the protesting nor particularly liking it, offering to help mediate between fraternities, protestors and other groups. But if Butler died on a hunger strike, the student said, “we fear campus will not be safe and turn into a situation of no return.”

“Many of the students in [protest group #ConcernedStudent1950] are motivated by anger and don’t seem to have a plan of action even if their demands are met,” the student wrote. “Many of them don’t have a plan of contingency,” adding that “preparations need to be made in the case the student passes and Mizzou is threatened with rioting and senseless violence. While I have not gotten the sense that they would go after your residence, it could be a target despite your public efforts.”

President Wolfe and Chancellor Bowen Loftin caved to students’ demands and resigned on Nov. 9, effectively ending the crisis on campus. But the events of last fall have continued to haunt the school, which has seen its fundraising and enrollment plummet.

The email exchanges we reviewed also show impatience with frequent disruptions to academics at the school during the protests. Several parents and students wrote to complain about classes being repeatedly canceled in response to the demonstrations.

A day after Mizzou’s high-profile resignations, a university employee wrote to Wolfe describing her frustration after seeing the video where Melissa Click, a communications professor, called for “muscle” against a student reporter.

“My fear is that things are going to get out of hand and something very bad is going to happen,” she wrote. “My husband is a Sgt. For the University Police and he is having to be in the middle of this mess and having someone like Melissa Click do everything in her power to incite a riot will make things go from bad to worse. I normally take walks around the campus a couple of times a day but currently am afraid to do so because I am white. My daughter goes to school at Mizzou, has some night classes, and she is now afraid to walk around campus and go to class because she is white.”

That same day, a parent wrote to the heads of the university on behalf of her daughter, who she said was so frightened she was trying to transfer out of the university.

“My white female student is being mobbed on her way to class and shouted at while being pushed claiming she’s a racist solely because of the color of her skin. … In the last 2 days she’s had 3 cancelled classes so her teachers could participate in this nonsense. So we’re paying for our child’s teachers to protest instead of educate?” she wrote.

Administrators had repeatedly called for students to confront racism and engage in “an ongoing dialogue” about “moving the UM system forward.” On Nov. 10, one student wrote to the now-ousted chancellor expressing frustration about the results of such a conversation.

“I tried to foster peaceful, civilized discussion with a few peers,” the student wrote. “What I received was a combination of personal and racial attacks, with direct quotes such as ‘You can’t have an opinion on this because you are white,’ ‘You have no right to speak,’ and ‘Get the f*** out of the lounge.’ I will not fill out a bias report on this because it has been made perfectly clear to me by both faculty and students that my skin color apparently gives me immunity from racial harassment, and I can only be treated as the aggressor in these situations.”

— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Independent Women’s Forum and the Steamboat Institute.