Interim UM System President optimistic for MU's future
COLUMBIA - It's been decades since Michael Middleton walked MU's campus as a student, but now he says he's prepared to fix the still-systemic diversity issues he faced as a 20-something.
"I have an opportunity to try my best to make my university what it ought to be," Middleton said.
He said he knows he has a lot of work to do. His first stated goal is to put the structures and mechanisms in place to manage inclusion, equity and diversity issues on all four campuses and the hospital system.
“It’s a complex problem. I think it starts with being honest with each other. Recognizing that we have all been programmed to behave in ways that are not conducive to civil tolerance, fair treatment of each other,” Middleton said.
Since Middleton took over several things have happened: There are now chief diversity officers on each UM campus. He is in the process of searching for a system-wide diversity officer, and he will also form a system-wide task force that will review university best practices and regulations from around the country in order to put together a plan to educate the community, enforce rules and get people to think "intelligently and honestly" about how people ought to relate to someone different from oneself.
“We all, from all persuasions, have got to come to grips with that conditioning that we have been through throughout history, and then come together and try to work through it," Middleton said. “You can’t do it if you’re uncomfortable or afraid, or intimated. That is not the way universities are supposed to operate. Our goal is to make this place a comfortable, hospitable, learning environment for everyone.”
He called MU's recent national attention a "black eye." However, he said it was necessary to get the university community to make the issues a priority.
“We want to be better than that. We deserve to be better than that. And I think that everyone’s commitment to make us better than that is going to produce some significant results," Middleton said. “My optimism is based on my knowledge of the people we have here concerned about this issue who want to help, and want to make it work.”
The student group #ConcernedStudent1950, which began the movement against former UM System President Tim Wolfe, is pleased with the UM Board of Curators' decision to appoint Middleton to the position.
“He shows genuine concern for the well-being of us as students," said #ConcernedStudent1950 member Marshall Allen.
However, Allen said a big misconception of the movement is that removing Wolfe was its only goal.
“His resignation was the start for putting the university and the well-being of minoritized and marginalized students in the hands of someone who’s more capable," Allen said.
The group had presented a list of demands to Wolfe and the curators. Wolfe's removal was only one of those demands.
Allen said: “If you don’t show concern and care for the students, the chancellor’s not going to show concern or care for the students; If the chancellor doesn’t show concern and care for the students, the administration’s not going to show concern and care for the students; If they don’t show concern or care for the students, the deans aren’t going to, then the faculty, then the students, then the staff; and it continues on this vicious cycle of negligence.”
The group also demanded an increase in the number of black faculty on MU's campus.
“We need more people in these places, we need more administrators and faculty who can identify with a lot of the stuff that we’re going through on campus," Allen said.
He said the group is aware there are a lot of people that still don't understand the movement, and all of the actions of the group. However, he puts their goal very plainly:
“We’re just simply pushing for something we believe in, which is the liberation of our people," Allen said.
MU student Veronica DeStefano said, “This is setting a new standard for what leadership at Mizzou is going to look like. The fact that people feel the need to stand-up for what they believe in, because they want to have that for everybody else on this campus, means that there is a lot of trust, and love, and compassion for this university.”
DeStefano said she is also hopeful that MU's campus will continue to champion inclusivity.
“I would hope that it would bring more just like, enrollment number-wise, more diversity because, right now, it’s pretty white-washed," DeStefano said.
She said the protests and events on campus opened a lot of people's eyes to what students of color feel, and what they need.
“I try to listen, and understand, and let those who need to speak, speak. Because I know that maybe me speaking isn’t going to be the best thing to do because my voice is not the one that is being held back all the time," DeStefano said.
Going forward, DeStefano said she is eager to see more education on racial issues for all students, which is also on Concerned Student's list of demands.
“If people aren’t educated, there’s not going to be any change," DeStefano said.