By Dr. Sarah A. Lacy, Assistant Professor of Anthropology
The University of Missouri – St. Louis is the most racially and socioeconomically diverse campus community I have ever been a member of. Sadly, however, I have heard mostly silence when it comes to many of the most pressing societal issues of our generation. UMSL said and did nothing of substance after multiple bouts of unrest in Ferguson and St. Louis City, and it is now following roughly the same path in light of the pervasive racial intolerance that has plagued our sister campus in Columbia. Our students are left asking why their professors and administrators have not taken a definitive stand on the issue.
Another panel or “feel-good” email from an administrator will accomplish nothing. When voices have been silenced or ignored for generations, an “open forum” is not the solution. The conversation will be dominated by the same voices. It may even give those in power an excuse to continue ignoring minority communities when those communities choose not to participate in a conversation. We must first show through our actions that we are ready to truly listen.
As a state institution tasked with providing a high quality education to its citizens, we ought to have a student body that reflects our population. Yet students of color do not feel safe on their very own flagship campus. Do they feel safe here at UMSL? Contrary to the oft-repeated trope, universities are not bastions of liberal thought; they are another institutional system that produces and reinforces racism, classism, sexism, and ableism. Quarantining small spaces for minority studies or feminist literature on campus does little to combat the dominant narrative of white, heterosexual, able-bodied male voices of authority in all disciplines.
I propose some concrete changes for UMSL that would show we truly value equality and justice for all members of our larger community. The first two are inspired by my own experiences at Tulane University, and the last four are elaborations on the demands put forth by Concerned Student 1950:
• We need a completely revamped freshman experience. It should begin with a university orientation that immerses students in St Louis’ history, food, architecture, and culture (for better or worse). It should emphasize that with education comes a responsibility to repay ones community and to build community amongst the incoming class.
• We need service learning requirements. Community involvement and volunteer work can be easily worked into a myriad of courses already present at UMSL. Many universities require students to enroll in similar courses. Our students’ educations need to include direct confrontations with the results of systemic racism and classism. This would also include more internship opportunities for students and more resource allocation to the programs that already exist.
• We need more faculty of color, especially in positions of power on governance committees and in the administration. This is not about “box ticking.” It is about recognizing that faculty of color are given greater service loads, have to be more productive to be viewed as equals, and are less likely to be given leadership opportunities. This makes the achievement of tenure even more difficult. We need to be hiring more faculty of color and re-evaluating the institutional support and recognition given to those already here.
• We need mandatory studies of non-European history and culture. A student should not be able to graduate without learning a foreign language and taking a course in other cultures and histories. The ‘cultural diversity’ general education requirement is insufficient.
• We need bottom up, instead of top-down diversity initiatives. They should be student-led and student-focused, and sufficiently funded. This should be a part of every department and office’s mission, not just for the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity.
• We need better access to mental health and social work services. Our students overcome many barriers to get to our campus. We need to make it easier for them with greater visibility and access to mental health services and social workers. Students should have easier access to the child development center’s childcare. These services should be further extended to all employees.
As a university, we must allocate money towards our priorities. Although we are under extreme financial constraints, creating a safe, dynamic space for all inhabitants of the St Louis area, including its 18% black population, is not only a priority, but a necessity. Exposing all of our students to foreign ideas, places, and people is a necessity. Retention of all students, especially students of color, and minimizing their debt loads is a necessity.
Concerned Student 1950 made a list of demands that should be heeded. Other universities have transformed in light of tragedy—look, for example, to the curriculum changes Tulane University made following Hurricane Katrina. Nothing changed on this campus after Ferguson, yet we could have led by example, and created new ways for our city to address systemic oppression. We are late to this issue, but that is still no excuse to not form a new vision now. And I say to students: change is only won, not given. Continue to speak up.