Chuck Raasch, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 22, 2016
The interim president of the University of Missouri system said the protests at the Columbia campus last fall were an extension of a centuries-old continuum of racial discord in the state and the country.
But Michael Middleton told the National Press Club that Mizzou can also be a national example as it struggles to deal with the problems exposed last fall.
In an hourlong speech and question-and-answer session, Middleton also defended the firing of controversial professor Melissa Click. Middleton said he expected to be in his job at least until the end of the year, as a national search for a permanent system head continues.
In one of several blunt answers to questions about challenges facing the flagship Columbia campus, he described prospective freshman fall enrollment there as “grim,” and said the campus is bracing for a $30 million drop in tuition from a smaller first-year class.
Middleton said that as a parent, he, too, would have second thoughts about sending a child to a campus “that I thought was violent and in total disarray.”
“The fact is the University of Missouri-Columbia is not violent and not in total disarray,” he said.
“I am optimistic,” he said. “We have been around 177 years. We have been through problems, ups and downs … We generally come back stronger.”
Speaking before C-SPAN cameras, he was asked a question that framed Missouri as a one-time slave state that prompted the 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision denying citizenship to freed slaves.
Middleton, an African-American who grew up in a segregated Mississippi in the 1950s and 1960s, paused before answering. He said that knowing the history of the state, that when he was in college in the 1960s, in the then-sports rivalry with the University of Kansas, “I am on Kansas’ side, you know.”
“Missouri has been a hotbed for centuries, and it is reflected in Missourians’ opinions and positions with regard to what happened at the university,” said Middleton, who received his undergraduate and law degrees at the Columbia campus.
“What you are seeing at Missouri and college campuses across the country is a reflection of that tension, that imperfection in our union,” he concluded. “And we need to find a solution. What better place to do that than a university?”