College

Two years after University of Missouri protests, college can't shake negative image

It’s been nearly two years since racially fueled protests on the campus of the University of Missouri drew national attention – and the school still hasn’t fully recovered.

Freshman enrollment plummeted between 2015 and last year. For the first time since 2007, the freshman class dropped below 6,000 students. There was a 42 percent drop among black students and 21 percent among white students on campus.

Perhaps most pressing, the school can’t seem to shake the reputation of being racially insensitive.

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"I feel like the school has suffered because it has gotten a bad name,” said senior civil engineering major, Brionna Emerson. “I hear it everywhere, I hear everyone talking about 'Oh Mizzou racism.”

Mizzou is also facing a $60 million deficit from a drop in tuition and state cuts not related to protests. About 400 positions have been cut.

The unrest on campus began in 2015 when outraged students began protesting for change in how black students are treated at the school and other issues, like health care.

One student went on a hunger strike and eventually the entire football team went on strike, resulting in the university chancellor and president resigning.

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Journalism professor Berkley Hudson told Fox News one of the most “critical” moments that sparked the unrest on campus happened during the school’s homecoming parade when protestors jumped into the parade route and blocked the car of the then-university president, Tim Wolfe.

Wolfe did not get out of the car or appear to acknowledge the student protestors.

“I was kind of flabbergasted that the president didn’t somehow respond to them, give some kind of signal, ‘I hear what you’re saying,’” Hudson said.

From there, thing got worse when a communications professor was caught on tape telling a student reporter to get away from a “safe space” where protestors were, and then asking for some “muscle” from other students to get the reporter away.

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That female faculty member no longer works at the university but the tape of her outbursts went viral and contributed to the origin of commonly used derogatory terms, “safe space” and “snowflakes.”

“I really don’t think she’s in any way the face of this,” said Dave Kurpius, the dean of the School of Journalism. “It’s a much bigger conversation than just that. This isn’t about individuals. This is about people and institutions and it’s broader than a single person.”

The University of Missouri has taken steps to fix the problems, creating a council on race relations.

“We’ve learned to listen to one another,” Hudson said. “And we’ve learned to ask questions. And there wasn’t a lot of asking questions during that time after the homecoming parade and then the hunger strike.”

The school also is hiring more black faculty, with four new hires in the journalism school alone.

Administrators say the situation on campus looks much worse to outsiders who want to focus solely on the events of 2015. Kurpius said the majority of students who were enrolled in 2015 went on to graduate or did not transfer away—suggesting the students who lived through the protests chose to return to Mizzou the following year. 

Some alumni were outraged and said the administration “kowtowed” to the bad behavior of students.

Others felt the university took extreme measures and felt the president and chancellor did not have to resign.

Despite the negative attention, the university says it received a record $121 million in cash donations this year.

“We're doing all the work that needs to be done to make sure that all students, not just students of color,” Kurpius said, “but rural white students, and others who feel that they might not have been welcomed at the university, that there's a place for them.” 

Matt Finn is a Fox News correspondent based in the Chicago bureau. Follow him on Twitter: @MattFinnFNC