This picture contains two landmarks at the University of Missouri, the dome on Jesse Hall and one of the columns. This picture is personal to me because that’s my son. The University of Missouri is personal to me as well which is why I am sharing a few thoughts and hopefully causing you to reflect along the way.
I’m an alum of the University of Missouri, and I’ve kept a close eye on the events that have unfolded over the past couple of months. I’m going to guess that many of you really only tuned into the situation when the football team made national news because of their decision to not practice until Jonathan Butler ended his hunger strike. That’s OK, but if you want more back story you should do an internet search for Concerned Student 1950.
If you read this blog on a regular basis you’re probably shocked I’m devoting any time to this topic. I tend to stay away from anything political and anything polarizing, but there’s a lesson to be learned in every situation, and I feel compelled to share what I’ve learned.
I grew up in a rural Missouri town. When I moved to Columbia to attend MIZZOU, I quickly realized there was more to the world than I knew. Rural Missouri is not a diverse place but university campuses are. I gained exposure to people of different nationalities, different religions, different races and different sexual orientations. My parents raised my brother, sister and me to be accepting and open, so the more I saw and learned the more I wanted to see. My diploma from the University of Missouri is the most valuable thing I’ve earned in my life, but the opportunity to expand my horizons, open my mind to different ways of thinking and appreciate diversity are the most meaningful aspects of my time in Columbia. I learned you can find common ground with just about anybody and we are all more alike than we are different.
I’m not a minority and I’ve never personally been a victim of racism, but I am empathetic and I do know racism occurs even in a place as liberal as a college campus. I do not believe racism is a big problem in Columbia, Missouri, but even one-act is too many and ignorance lives everywhere. I also believe to my core that tolerance and perspective are important, and I will do my best to raise my kids to be open-minded and inclusive.
Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike ended because University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe resigned. Although his resignation doesn’t solve any problems, it was the right move. In his emotional press conference he said this: “My decision to resign comes out of love, not hate. Please, please use my resignation to heal, not to hate. Let’s move forward together for a brighter tomorrow. God bless all of you.”
I don’t know Tim Wolfe. I know people – both black and white – who do know him. By all accounts he’s a decent guy, but by my account he handled the situation poorly and that’s the lesson for me.
I’m a leader. I have the honor and privilege of leading people every day. I don’t take my position or authority for granted. I also don’t pretend to know everything, and I sure don’t know how people feel about every situation they’re presented with. Tim Wolfe failed when he didn’t respond timely. Tim Wolfe failed when he didn’t listen. Had Tim Wolfe taken the time to listen to Concerned Student 1950 or taken action after concerned students surrounded his car in the homecoming parade he might very well still be the University System President.
Tim Wolfe could not have solved the problem, but he could have acknowledged it. He could have taken action. He could have set wheels in motion to address concerns. Sometimes the wrong course of action can be a problem but in this case the problem was inaction.
None of us can solve all the world’s problems; however, each of us can acknowledge the world has problems. If you’re a leader you can’t ignore the concerns of those you serve – especially when those concerns impact dignity and self-worth. If you’re a leader you have to lead, and inaction isn’t leading. To lead you have to choose a direction and then help people turn that way and head down a path. The path then leads to a destination which might never be reached, but each step is one step closer. The same is true of inclusion and acceptance of diversity. Each step matters, and on Monday a first step occurred at the University of Missouri. Whether or not you agree it was the right step, it is hard to argue that a step had to be taken.
The University of Missouri I know and love helped a sheltered kid from rural Missouri realize the world is a better place because not everyone is from rural Missouri. Earlier this week, the University of Missouri I know and love, taught the world a leadership lesson.