On a summer semester morning, Mizzou's iconic symbols, the six columns on Francis Quadrangle, are surrounded by scaffolding and covered in mesh, as workmen smooth and seal cracks. The columns are undergoing a facelift.
So too is the university's image.
"If we are really committed to action, we will really rise like a phoenix," said Dr. Kevin McDonald. "I'm excited about that. To the extent that we don't, we will fail miserably."
Who is Kevin McDonald and why is so much riding on his success or failure at the University of Missouri-Columbia? McDonald's 1-year-old job title is a mouthful: Vice Chancellor of Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity, a new position created by the UM System Board of Curators. His mission is to develop a blueprint for healing a campus fractured by race in 2015.
"I've been accessible. I've been visible. I connected with anyone who will let me connect, to both identify the lingering issues, maybe some of the desires for a for a promising future, but also these kinds of solutions that our stakeholders are seen as equal partners," said McDonald.
In September 2015, then-student body president Payton Head, an African American, shared on social media that white people in a pickup truck yelled racist names at him while he was walking near campus. His Facebook post shared that this was the second time the n-word had been yelled at him. The Columbia Missourian picked up the story, setting off a chain reaction of campus politics and protests.
"I just really want to know why my simple existence is such a threat to society," Head wrote on Facebook. "For those of you who wonder why I'm always talking about the importance of inclusion and respect, it's because I've experienced moments like this multiple times at THIS university, making me not feel included here.
"Is it weird that I think that I have the right to feel safe here, too? If you see violence like this and don't say anything, you, yes YOU, are a part of the problem."
A slow response by Mizzou administration caused graduate student Jonathan Butler to start what became an eight-day hunger strike to force the resignation or firing of university president Dr. Tim Wolfe. The ripple effect continued with faculty support and a threatened boycott by the Tigers' football team that could have cost the school millions. The university president and chancellor both resigned.
McDonald recalls following the unfolding story at Mizzou while he was employed at the Rochester Institution of Technology as vice president and assistant provost for diversity and inclusion.
"I wasn't able to determine what the UM system or Mizzou brand was around diversity in general," said McDonald. "It felt to me their narrative was being controlled by the media and much of it was really negative."
With a new chancellor and a new president, what's next for the University of Missouri-Columbia and it's diversity chief?
"I felt there was a level of leadership support that would provide me with the latitude to succeed or fail. I can work with those odds," said McDonald. "I think you are looking for opportunities to develop, to build, to create, to be innovative, to go where others won't. Where people saw doom and gloom, I saw opportunity."
McDonald's opportunity came in disguise as a significant drop in enrollment. In 2014, 6,500 freshmen enrolled at the UMC campus. That number dropped to 4,700 for 2016, resulting in a tuition revenue decline of nearly 10 million dollars. Financial rating agency Moody's recently downgraded the University of Missouri's credit outlook from stable to negative, citing enrollment declines and cuts in state funding.
"I don't know that it's entirely accurate to attribute the decline in enrollment solely to what happened in October, November of 2015. There are many more factors that are involved," said Dr. Berkley Hudson, citing declining state support.
Hudson is an associate professor of journalism at Mizzou and a member of race relations committee, formed prior to the campus unrest. In 2015, Time Magazine published his essay about Mizzou, race, and the challenge of getting people to respectfully listen to each other.
"It takes a willingness of heart and mind to say 'let's figure this out and let's learn.' I'm mildly optimistic that under our current president and incoming chancellor that we could do that," said Hudson. "We're a perfect place to be a model for figuring this out, but there has to be a willingness in leadership to say 'yes, we want to be a leader.' We want to show our example of how you can deeply listen to one another and come up with solutions."
Among those participating in summer orientation in June was the Hick family from Lee's Summit. Doug Hick and his wife Margaret are Mizzou alums who bleed black and gold.
"A daughter about to go here, a daughter that is a senior, and a son that was here three and a half years," said Doug Hick. "We are diehards. We are not going to give up on the university."
Hick hopes that the new administration will be proactive. "The university needs to get out in front of things when they happen, or try to undo some of the damage a little bit harder," said Hick. "I felt like they were reacting the whole time. The leadership has to lead and not just react."
Tyler Brumfield of Chicago was a freshman in 2015 and considered transferring from Mizzou following the campus unrest. He stayed and now hopes the university will seize the day.
"I want to see our university start a movement, start a trend," said Brumfield. "Not just for the University of Missouri, but for universities across the nation because these are not just issues that Mizzou faces."
The bronze statue and fountain at Tiger Plaza is a well-known campus landmark, that features the inscribed lyrics of "Old Missouri". The argument continues that old Missouri must make way for a new Missouri.
"There are times in an organization where the social movements are gone," said McDonald. "2015 is gone and maybe people might have the mindset that we can get back to the way things used to be. I think we have to be committed to moving forward."
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