Monday, November 09, 2015

Aysmmetrical Leadership: Wolfe Resigns - Yale Heats Up & More SAE Racism?

Tim Wolfe resigns as president of Missouri
The resignation of University of Missouri president Tim Wolfe this morning is a testament both to the power of peaceful forms of nonviolent protest combined with social media, and the importance the university places on the revenue stream from its Division I college football program.

Grad student Jonathan Butler's announcement last Monday that he was going on a hunger strike until Wolfe resigned really helped to focus national media attention on the issue.

I suspect he's doing some serious chowing down at this point after six days with no food. It took some cojones to do what he did.

But the mere threat of a possible forfeit of the Mizzou Tigers - BYU football game this weekend, and the revenue from tickets, concessions, broadcast rights, merchandise and advertising (plus a $1 million penalty) really sealed the deal for Wolfe.

That speaks to the power of sports and money in our society; but it's nice to see them used to help drive positive social change and in doing so, take a stand against the racism, intolerance and ignorance that's all to common on college campuses around the U.S.

Given the seriousness of the racial incidents and the subsequent inaction on the part of the Mizzou administration to address them in a timely manner that sparked the protests, it's doubtful that members of Concerned Students 1950 and other University of Missouri students and staff who actively campaigned for Wolfe's resignation are under the illusion that everything is fine now.

This is not a "kumbaya moment".

It's a defining moment for a major educational institution in a state still reeling from the aftermath of the Ferguson protests that erupted in the wake of the killing of teenager Michael Brown and the revelation of shocking institutionalized racism and bias entrenched within the local court system and the police department.

For Missouri this is a moment that can't be wasted  given what's at stake for the school's reputation and it's future. 

Yale students marching across campus on Monday 11/9/15
1,157 miles to the northeast of the Missouri campus in New Haven, Connecticut, a defining moment is also taking shape.

Earlier today hundreds of Yale University students and supporters engaged in a "March of Resilience" to protest against what many are calling the Ivy League institutions lack of racial sensitivity.

The protests were sparked back in late October after an administrator named Erika Christakis wrote a controversial email disagreeing with a request by the school's Intercultural Affairs Committee calling for students to avoid wearing Halloween costumes that might be considered racially or culturally insensitive.

Her email was sent out to the entire university and read in part:
"Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious … a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition."

In response to Christakis' remarkably tone deaf email longing for the days in America when dressing in an offensive Halloween costume was considered a 'hoot', more than 740 students, faculty members and Yale staff signed an open letter to Christakis, calling her email "offensive".

A heated public exchange between a female student and Christakis' husband Nicholas, who serves as the Master for Silliman (one of Yale's student residence houses) in which the student emotionally berates Christakis for putting the intellectual concept of free speech expressed by his wife above the importance of racial sensitivity has gone viral.

If you haven't seen or heard it give it watch, it's not long and it offers a glimpse of the depth of cultural tension that is simmering on the campus of one of the most esteemed universities in the world.

Yale students gathered on campus
To me what's most important is illustrated in the photo of the march at Yale seen on the left.

The hundreds of Yale students who came out to protest cultural insensitivity today were Asian, white, Hispanic and African-American.

The march went from the Afro-American Cultural Center across campus past the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity where a female Yale sophomore named Neema Githere alleged that she and her friends of color were turned away from a party last Friday by an unidentified frat brother who supposedly told them they couldn't be admitted because the event was for "white girls only".

Seriously, what is it with these SAE frat brothers anyway?

Remember back in March of this year when the SAE chapter at the University of Oklahoma was closed after video of frat members in tuxedos on a bus headed to a formal while gleefully singing along to a chant called "There will never be a nigger at SAE..." was making national headlines?

I guess some students will never learn.

Regardless, I'm interested to see what will come of the protests in Columbia and New Haven in terms of policy changes or enforcement of codes of conduct for students and staff.

But I do get the sense we're seeing a rising backlash against the angry, divisive tone in this country that has come from the extreme political right that now dominates the Republican party.  

Leadership has traditionally been a top-down thing in this nation and I think some of these incidents happening on college campuses in this country are a byproduct of the years of normalization of intolerance and acceptance of bigotry by conservative politicians who seem to exist in the echo chamber of the right-wing media they pander to.

But as the protests and subsequent resignation of Tim Wolfe in Missouri demonstrates, what appears to be a new kind of  "asymmetrical leadership" is emerging; a 21st century version of the great American protest movements of the 20th century for women's rights, civil rights, the anti-war movement in the 60's, environmental rights.

It's what I see as a style of leadership characterized by people coalescing around an issue and using social media to communicate and create momentum that doesn't require the support or endorsement of mainstream media, corporate entities, political parties, or any other "institution".

This leadership style is a reflection of the evolution of the merger of Web-based platforms and technology into our lives;  we carry it in our phones wherever we go.

Like the Internet it's amorphous, powerful and doesn't require any one leader to tell it  how to think or what it should do - as Tim Wolfe learned the hard way.

Keep your eyes peeled, it will be interesting to watch how this rejection of intolerance influences the tone of the 2016 elections and who we want to be as a nation.

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