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Intersection - Inclusion and Diversity at MU


Today on Intersection, we’re talking about diversity and inclusivity at the University of Missouri with UM System Interim President Mike Middleton. We’re also talking with Angela Speck, who is a professor of physics and astronomy, director of the astronomy program and chair of the faculty council diversity enhancement committee at MU. This is a special two-part show, and next week we will continue the conversation on diversity and inclusivity with students.

Over the past few months, race and racism have been at the center of conversations about this school. Protests that included demands for more direct address of racism on campus, increased hiring of faculty of color and removal of UM system president Tim Wolfe led to Wolfe’s resignation. Now the university is looking for a way forward. In conversations about that way forward, you often hear several words used, including the words diversity and inclusivity – but those words can mean different things to different people. So today, and in our show next week here on Intersection, we’re talking with  leaders at MU about what those words mean to them. We’re also talking about how these leaders envision these concepts developing within the university going forward, what’s already happening, and challenges those developments face. 

Selected questions and answers from our conversation with UM System Interim President Mike Middleton. To listen to the complete interview and the rest of the show, click the arrow.

What do the words diversity and inclusivity mean to you in terms of this school and this campus?


Diversity, I think, has historically been associated with the numbers, increasing the numbers of students and faculty from a variety of marginalized groups and it was almost an outgrowth or a rebranding of affirmative action, or at least that's the way it's been thought of in the minds of lots of people. Though I think when we initially started using diversity we meant it in a much broader sense, and part of the breadth of that sense was this concept of inclusion and you know I put it on a continuum. We've done a pretty good job over the years of numerically diversifying our campus. We haven't done a lot in terms of including students from these diverse backgrounds in the mainstream of campus activity. So that's what I think of as inclusion, that's why I think it's such a good idea to include that word in the dialog because it brings in the concept that you've got to do more than simply get some numbers and tolerate their existence, we want to include them in what we do and make sure they feel as if they are included.

Will we see things like training for new students and staff on diversity starting in the spring?

I think you will. I think Chancellor Loftin made that commitment last semester and certainly there is training that can be found that has proven effective particularly for entering students and it shouldn't be hard to include some training that makes it clear to incoming students that there are values here, there's behavior that will and will not be tolerated. That kind of notice to all newcomers to our community about who we are and how we behave, that should be simple to put together and implement next semester. But the kind of education that we need to be providing to some of the old heads and the kind of education that we need to be providing for some of those new students that come in who have these attitudes engrained in them and they don't even know it, when you're talking about changing the way people think and feel, you're changing their hearts. I think that's going to take more time but that is where the longer term solution I think really lies.

We've been talking a little bit about the idea of having conversations and facilitating conversations. I've talked with students who work with other students on that, and we've talked about how those conversations can be hard and awkward, and people can really shy away from them. Engaging a whole campus in these conversations seems like a real challenge.

It is a real challenge, but I'm confident we can do that. We've got brilliant people on this campus in all disciplines, and many of those academic disciplines deal directly with these kinds of issues and we need to draw on the talent we have to develop something that grows out of our university community. When we do it ourselves, when it comes from our knowledge and our backgrounds and our understandings, I think it's a lot better than some commercial product that we can get. It takes time though, so I'm not opposed to the commercial products for some things like the initial incoming student training. There probably is something out there that would be very effective at setting the stage and there indeed may be something out there in the research, probably not commercially available, but maybe so, that takes that deeper dive on these issues. If we can find it, we will certainly consider doing that. But I suspect it's going to be better if we do it ourselves.


Another thing that's been a major topic of discussion is hiring faculty and staff of color, and how to increase those numbers. Is there a plan in place, and is there funding for a plan, to attract more faculty and staff of color?

Well, there are plans in place for all four campuses, and they've been in place for years and they have had limited success. It's a difficult, difficult issue, particularly when you are talking about attracting faculty of color to a small Midwestern town, and indeed the recent events might make it appear to be a small Midwestern racist town. So it may be difficult. It may continue to be difficult to get those numbers up. On the Columbia campus, I will tell you, we've done a lot in that regard. We've devoted some significant resources to it. We've managed to hire 10 or 12 faculty of color a year, and if we had been able to retain all the people that we hired over the last 15 to 20 years, we would have met the students' demand already. The problem is you get people here and they leave. I mean they're superstars, we hire them, they build a reputation, and some university that has twice the budget we do, twice the amount of state support that we do, in a warmer climate or closer to a bigger city, or for any number of reasons, even more prestige than us. People are going to go where the money is, where the opportunity is. So I find, and I've regretted so many times hiring somebody and having them four or five years later come and tell me, "Hey, somebody offered to double my salary in Atlanta. I'm going." You can't argue with that. So it's a difficult proposition. We've tried things like growing our own, finding a really bright graduate students and trying to groom them, but there's a tendency on the part of universities not to hire your own. So we've talked about partnering with another comparable universities and identifying graduate students at Indiana who they think are really going to be great. Well send them here and we'll send you ours, and that has worked on a limited scale but there are all kinds of creative ways to tap that limited pool of Ph.Ds of color in the country. So we will continue to try. We will devote more resources to it, but that's probably the hardest, other than changing people's hearts - getting the numbers of faculty of color up to where they ought to be is probably the second most difficult problem we are going to have.

Would the centralized fund (resources used to help hire faculty of color) be increased at any point in the near future?

Well probably so, we've spent all of what we've allocated to that program, annually and we've increased it a little bit over the years, but that was in the context of a very limited budget and we were stealing money from other activities. I think the beauty of our situation, what makes me optimistic now, is that we know what we need to do, We know that we need more resources to really put a dent in this issue, and I think the board is convinced that we're going to have to find - I want to say what we need to do this job, but what we need to do this job is probably beyond the board's capacity - but we are going to commit as much as we can to doing this job. I think, frankly, that there are supporters of this university out there, donors who have gifts and contributions to make to their university who also think this is important. And I think a targeted development campaign around these issues could generate some resources that could help us invest what we need to invest to make some real significant progress in this area. But the board I know is committed, our budget director is already looking at the numbers, trying to see what he can pull together in the immediate future, and we're going to devote some significant resources to this.

It's a window of opportunity?

It's a window of opportunity. It's our chance to shine. It's our chance to become a national leader at least in this area, and I fully intend to do everything I can to make that happen.

Interview has been edited for length.

To hear the rest of our interviews, listen to our entire show. 

Intersection is produced by Caty Eisterhold and Ailin Li. Our community outreach team is Kara Tabor and Hellen Tian.