UMSL's look at race relations started long before recent events at Mizzou
As president of the Associated Black Collegians at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, LaVell Monger is well versed on issues facing minorities on campus.
But when the recent furor erupted over the president of the University of Missouri system, Monger admits the name Tim Wolfe didn’t exactly ring a bell.
“I’d never heard of him,” Monger said. “I had no idea who was the UM president.”
Wolfe’s name is far better known now, of course, not only to students at the four-campus university system but nationwide. In the wake of growing protests by black students in Columbia and a threat by football players to sit out this weekend’s game in Kansas City, Wolfe resigned on Monday. Mizzou Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin stepped aside the same several hours later.
Of the four UM campuses, UMSL has the largest percentage of African-American students – 14 percent, compared with 10 percent at Kansas City, 7 percent at Columbia and 3 percent at Rolla. Systemwide, 9 percent of more than 75,000 students are black.
Monger and others at UMSL say that while the racial climate on campus may not be perfect, it is far from the tinderbox that went up in flames at Mizzou.
“There’s really no racial tension,” Monger said in an interview. “There are certain conversations that we seem to ignore at times, but as a whole, you don’t have to worry about being called the N-word. You don’t have to worry about people leaving things on a wall.
“You pretty much can communicate with a lot of people. There are still ways we could increase the relations between the different groups on campus, but right now, and compared to a lot of other people in St. Louis, it’s very diverse.”
Monger, a 24-year-old senior anthropology major who graduated from Vashon High School in St. Louis, doesn’t share much background with Cameron Roark, the president of UMSL’s Student Government Association. A white, 21-year-old criminal justice major from Jefferson City, Roark has had dealings Wolfe, but he too was surprised by the intensity of the situation that developed last weekend.
First thing Monday morning, Roark said, he met with UMSL Chancellor Tom George, then began planning to reach out to various groups on campus to get readings on where they felt the racial climate on campus stood.
“We do have a very diverse campus,” he said. “We have a lot of different people with different opinions, so that does help with race relations. We want to find out what we can do better, and that’s what we are in the process of doing.
“Some of them say they’re doing completely fine, that they don’t see any issues or they see we are addressing them. Some organizations say everything’s great, but we can still do more.”
After Wolfe’s resignation, George told students, faculty, staff and alumni at UMSL that the principles of civility, diversity and inclusion are paramount on the campus, even as society as a whole continues to wrestle with system racism, social justice and equal opportunity.
He said he asked the Chancellor’s Cultural Diversity Council to organize a forum where people at UMSL can share ideas about making the university climate better.
New position, old issues
One of the pledges made by the Board of Curators after Wolfe’s resignation was the establishment of a position dedicated to diversity, inclusion and equality at each campus as well as at the system level. Roark thinks that will be a good start.
“I think that this is a huge cultural issue,” he said. “There are a lot of things that play into what we’ve seen happen, the acts of hate that have occurred. But I also don’t think that we can do nothing, so this is a step in trying to address these issues.”
To Monger, though, a big question is how effective anyone who fills such a position can be.
“I feel you have to be very boots to the ground,” he said. “You have to be able to talk with the students. You have to be able to walk with the students. You have to be able to become familiar with the different things that go on on the campus. Hopefully, they will be just a couple of years out from undergrad, where they still can communicate with the students and come up with effective ideas.
“The position may bring some type of change, but it all starts with the students.”
One factor that affected race relations at UMSL that did not figure directly into conditions on the system’s other campuses was last year’s fatal shooting of Michael Brown and the resulting unrest in Ferguson, just down the street from the north county campus.
It definitely affected Hubert Hoosman, an UMSL graduate who has been active for years in alumni affairs. A star basketball player on the campus in the ‘70s, he retired from a career in finance to start a real estate firm just down the street from the Ferguson police station.
He said the demonstrations there definitely hurt recruitment of students and athletes at UMSL, which he termed “somewhat guilty by association geographically.” But he added that George’s active role in keeping the campus informed and safe will help it recover.
Hoosman knows that some UMSL alumni have said the campus was a place of systemic racism and inherent inequality. But he said alumni groups have helped make the climate better.
“That’s a very harsh term,” he said. “There are areas that need improvement and the leadership has used as a sounding board to get the necessary feedback to achieve their goals.”
Roark says that Ferguson gave UMSL one more opportunity to have the kinds of conversations that can lead to better understanding among groups on campus. “I don’t necessarily think that it really damaged relationships,” he said.
For Monger, the result of the tensions in Columbia that have now resounded throughout the whole system may be unfortunate, but they should lead to improvements overall, even though it is too late for Wolfe and Loftin.
“No one should really have to lose their jobs,” he said, “but I feel like it is needed in order to enhance the awareness, to let people know that this is a problem and we’ve got to figure out some way to resolve it.
“If a man getting fired or resigning is needed in order to gain attention that this is an issue, then that’s a small sacrifice for a bigger outcome.”
The University of Missouri's Board of Curators holds the license for St. Louis Public Radio.