MU administration to staff: ‘Publicly support’ decisions, discourage student protests

In a July Zoom meeting of Student Affairs staff, administration laid out a set of expectations for staff, discussing dissent and the possibility of student protests.
Jesse Hall and the columns are backed by a blue sky during the first week of classes. Megan James

University of Missouri administrators instructed staff members to “publicly support” all university decisions and work to prevent “widespread protests,” according to a presentation from a July 23 Zoom meeting.

The Maneater obtained a recording of the meeting from an MU staff member.

The meeting was led by MU Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Bill Stackman and directed toward staff in the university’s student affairs division. In the meeting, Stackman delivered a slideshow about staff expectations for the 2020-21 academic year.

Stackman said on multiple occasions during the meeting that UM System President and MU Chancellor Mun Choi authored the slides and generally directed Stackman’s messaging.

“I made it applicable to us,” Stackman said near the beginning of the call. “But a lot of this is his [Choi’s] own words.”

The primary focus of the presentation was dissent among staff members and MU’s expectation that staff “publicly support” administrative decisions.

“Once all input has been evaluated and a decision has been made, publicly support the decision of the University,” a slide titled “Staff Expectations” read.

Stackman laid out the expectation bluntly:

“If you’re not (in agreement), we still expect you to support the decision — or if you don’t understand how we made that decision, ask. And if you don’t know what we’ve explained, then just trust that we did the right thing.”

The meeting featured additional discussion over the concept of “publicly support[ing]” the university and what it entails.

“We don’t want to ridicule the decision-makers, or to undermine or to bash,” Stackman said.

Stackman also discussed Student Affairs’ need to support students but comply with administrators’ direction.

“How do we walk the line?” he said. “How are we an advocate but also an employee of the university?”

MU spokesperson Christian Basi emphasized that the direction to “publicly support” the University is an expectation, not a formal policy.

“If you find yourself in a position where you’re not in agreement with the direction of the organization, should you think about how you envision your career going and what next steps you want to take?” MU spokesperson Christian Basi said. “Is this an organization that you feel like ‘Yes, they’re not going in a direction I agree with but I do want to stick with them’ … or ‘No, they’re not going in this direction and they’ve made a lot of decisions I don’t agree with, I’m going to look for someplace else.’”

Asked whether that’s a suggestion disagreeing faculty and staff should leave MU, Basi said it wasn’t.

“We want individuals who work here to be proud of the institution and to be in a position where they feel they’re making a contribution,” Basi said. “And if you don’t feel that way, let’s think about it. I would argue, are there things that could be changed about your job responsibilities that you’re making more of a contribution, first. Or is that something that you need to think about, saying ‘Hey, wait a minute, is this a place that I really want to be for a long time?’

“We’re not saying you need to do this, we’re saying have the conversation with yourself.”

During the meeting, Stackman also expressed concerns about the possibility of student protests, referencing 2015 protests that led to some improvements in MU’s inclusion policies and administrative changes.

“Widespread protests could impact enrollment, financially impacting our division,” Stackman said. “So obviously, this is a concern. This is a concern of our president and should be, right? 2015 was devastating. And so the last thing that our president and our curators want to risk is something so damaging like 2015.”

Basi offered a different reason for not wanting protests on campus:

“If a protest is going to happen, we have missed something,” he said. “We have not heard someone or a group of people. And if we have not done that, we’re not doing our jobs.”

Asked why administration has talked about financial implications of possible protests instead of MU’s responsibility to listen to its stakeholders, Basi cited a difference of perspective.

“It may be that there are multiple messages that are being provided because certain things resonate with other people,” he said.

In response to a question about Choi’s expectations regarding whether or not staff should provide support to dissenting students, Stackman instructed staff to challenge students’ desire to protest.

“I think educating is part of supporting, challenging is part of supporting, clarifying, getting them to think through the process,” Stackman said. “Sometimes they just want to react, they are so emotionally charged … there may be other things that they might want to think through, letting them know of other consequences.”

Stackman said administrators were creating a pamphlet in order to ensure students conduct what MU considers a ‘successful protest’. He mentioned abiding by university policies, including time, place, manner and whether or not demonstrators can use amplified sound as components.

“Freedom of expression is, I think, at the hallmark of the student experience,” Stackman said. “And so it would be helping them learn, ‘This is what I can do, this is what I can't do.’”

Basi confirmed plans for a pamphlet and also pointed to freespeech.missouri.edu, a website that explains protest guidelines put into place in 2017. He said “a group of legal, First Amendment experts” developed those procedures.

Staff are allowed to attend student-led protests, but Stackman alluded to the fact that it was important for them to be “outsiders” — at least partly at Choi’s behest.

“I think that we need to be there sometimes to observe, and I will share that with the president,” Stackman said. “Probably something that I should share to say ‘This is what I said to my staff’, that you might see us at protests but that doesn't mean that we’re an active participant.”

Stackman said he understood that staff should not sign any petitions — such as the one for the removal of MU’s controversial Thomas Jefferson statue — as that could be seen as public dissent with the university's decisions.

“That’s one avenue that they [students] see as a major impact they have,” Stackman said. “We have other avenues to influence decisions that students don't have, so I would think that may not be the best one for staff to use.”

One faculty member brought up the dilemma graduate student staff may face, wanting to balance student activism and professional roles. Stackman suggested siding with the university.

“You have to remember you are an employee of the university, so you’ve got that hat on, and I don't know if there is a time you take that hat off,” Stackman said.

In 2015, graduate student Jonathan L. Butler went on a hunger strike as a part of the protest, a key factor in leading to then UM System President Timothy Wolfe’s resignation.

Stackman suggested that some of MU’s problems, like budget restraints amid the COVID-19 pandemic, are common across public universities. Others, like racial injustice and the Jefferson statue, are specific to Missouri, he said.

“It’s interesting,” Stackman said of how universities are handling racial injustice. “As I talked to my colleagues across the country, some are dealing with this issue, many are not — it may not be an issue. It is an issue at Mizzou — and will be because of who we are, because of our history, because of 2015 and before.”

“I can’t think of a challenge that we’re not experiencing right now,” Stackman said.

Edited by Caitlin Danborn | cdanborn@themaneater.com

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