Days after protesters successfully toppled the University of Missouri’s president and chancellor last fall, a white student forwarded her professor a disturbing tweet that had made her fearful to come to class. “#Mizzou black students need to stop protesting and start killing,” it said. “The white supremacy made it clear they aint hearing it.” (This Twitter account’s tweets are protected, and no one responded to our tweeted request for comment. )
The ominous tweet had already received 16 retweets and three likes. The professor forwarded the message to interim administration personnel and to 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.
Such safety concerns became increasingly common as protests rocked the University of Missouri throughout October and November 2015. News coverage focused on black students’ claims of pervasive racism, pointing to a several troublesome incidents as evidence of a bigoted culture on campus.
But a look at the e-mail correspondence of several University of Missouri administrators and faculty members during the campus crisis reveals how protesters’ belligerence left many students, faculty, and parents feeling fearful of violence and concerned about their safety.
To understand what was going on behind the scenes as Mizzou’s campus was rocked by protests throughout much of October and November, Heat Street and National Review sought correspondence from key leaders on campus. The request yielded 7,400 pages of records.
On October 7, 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. . . . 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 October 19 meeting between the university’s president and some of the protesters 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.”
By mid November, the mood on campus had become even more hostile, if the e-mail correspondence is any indication. Racist comments and rumors had circulated on Yik-Yak; the black student-body president erroneously reported that the KKK was on campus, to the horror of many black students; and non-minority students and faculty quietly wrote to the administration that they felt increasingly targeted, silenced, and fearful.
On November 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 hashtag #ConcernedStudent1950.
One video posted under that hashtag portrays a protester singling out people on campus, shouting, “If you’re uncomfortable, I did my job.” In the background, other protestors shout “power,” raising their fists.
— Anurag Chandran (@AnuragRC) November 7, 2015
“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 protesters’ behavior. “Even students not involved in the protests are getting agitated, fearful, and concerned,” their notes said, 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.”
On November 8 — day four of graduate student Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike demanding the resignation of Wolfe, the university president — 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 e-mail, wrote about neither condemning the protests nor particularly liking them, 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. . . . 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 November 9, effectively ending the crisis. But the events of last fall have continued to haunt the campus, which has seen its fundraising and enrollment plummet. The protests undisputedly interrupted education. Several parents and students complained in writing that classes were being canceled in response to the protests or, in some cases, seemingly to facilitate the protests.
On November 13, interim leaders responded to “the tumultuous situation on our campus” by asking professors to accommodate “those students most involved in and affected by recent events” as they “are asking for assistance in successfully completing their course requirements this semester.”
A day after Mizzou’s high-profile resignations, a university employee wrote to Wolfe after seeing the video in which Melissa Click, a journalism professor, called for “muscle” against a student reporter. She described her concerns:
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 University of Missouri leaders on behalf of her daughter, who was so frightened, the parent said, that 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?
Campus leaders had repeatedly called for students to confront racism and engage in “an ongoing dialogue” about “moving the UM system forward.” On November 10, one student wrote to the now-ousted chancellor to express frustration about the results of such a conversation:
I tried to foster peaceful, civilized discussion with a few peers. 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.