Spiritual Life, Dr. Akande Address Mizzou Protests
BY JIM MALVEN
Days after top University of Missouri officials resigned amid student demands to end racism at the predominately white school, Westminster took steps both to support Mizzou students and to examine how Westminster can ensure racial equity on campus.
First, on Thursday, members of Spiritual Life collected student signatures on a banner in JCI reading “WestMO stands against discrimination.”
According to Erin Perry, ’17, overseer of Interfaith Advisory Board, the banner was intended not just to show anti-discriminatory sentiment, but also to show Westminster’s support for the University of Missouri protesters.
Student organizers at Mizzou began calling for MU President Tim Wolfe’s resignation, among other demands , on Oct. 20, following a long history of racial tension on campus that culminated this fall. Demonstrators criticized Wolfe and other administrators for what they said were inadequate responses to racist incidents on campus.
The students also aimed to illuminate what they described as a painful and often silenced history of racist policies and practices at Mizzou. Organizers urged the university to promote a safer, more inclusive campus by taking actions such as creating a school-wide racial awareness curriculum, increasing the percentage of black faculty and staff on campus, and developing a new process for selecting future university system presidents and chancellors.
Perry said Westminster’s banner was a way to “show a sense of standing in solidarity with Mizzou and the actions they’re taking to further not only discussion about systemic oppression, but also at least trying to take steps to change that.”
Perry added that part of her job in Spiritual Life is to help engage the campus in responding to current events that generate discussion about equity and social justice.
“When Ferguson happened last year, there was only one event on campus, and we felt kind of uncomfortable about that, and we wanted to change that,” Perry said. “So [Rev.] Jamie [Haskins] and I have been thinking of ways we can . . . encourage the campus to respond to events like the one that happened at Mizzou.”
Westminster students did respond, and the banner was covered with signatures by Thursday night.
Perry added that while some students disagree with the protests because of the protesters’ clashes with the media or because they believed that the protests were unnecessary, she sees the movement as something necessary and impactful.
“I think it’s really incredible,” she said. “I think it’s really powerful, and it makes me wonder why none of that happens on our campus. I just think it’s really incredible that students can say, ‘We see this as a problem, and we are going to … use the power we have as students and use our voices to try to make a change.’”
Another response to the Mizzou protests came on Friday, when President Akande spoke in Champ Auditorium in what he called a “conversation on increasing excellence.”
Akande focused on how Westminster should be handling issues of diversity so that they do not escalate into severe discrimination and extreme protest.
“This is a time for institutions across the country to revisit diversity on their own doorsteps,” Akande said. “I see this as an opportunity for us to do the same here at Westminster College.”
“These issues combine to create a quicksand of considerations, which can be overwhelming,” Akande added. “Yet, confronting these challenges as a community can also unleash our best thinking and boldest action.”
Akande said that the country’s racial challenges are real and urged students to fight racism in all its forms.
“Our efforts to embrace diversity are not about doing the right thing because it is politically correct,” he said. “We embrace and champion diversity because it makes us stronger. It makes us better prepared to serve our rapidly changing communities. Embracing differences has become a prerequisite for success.”
Akande said we must “embrace our differences and celebrate our similarities,” before outlining three ways Westminster will continue to ensure this occurs.
According to Akande, diversity will be embraced “through open and honest dialogue that leads to greater understanding and appreciation of each other, by setting stretch goals that move us closer to an inclusive community, [and through] a well-defined recruiting strategy that ensures diverse representation among our students, faculty and staff.”
He said that discussions of diversity should be inclusive and responsible.
“We all have a seat at this table, and we all have a voice,” Akande said. “Expression of your opinion is vital. I will uphold your freedom of speech. But that freedom also comes with responsibilities. We must not disparage others. We must not undermine them or mischaracterize them.”
“I understand that we may disagree, and that’s okay, because I really believe that disagreement is not disrespect,” Akande said, adding, “I expect honest, intelligent people to disagree, and I’m going to tell you that I will fight to death to ensure that your voice is heard, that you have a right to articulate your perspective and your feelings, and I also hope that in doing so, that you will do it responsibly; you will do it with care; you will do it with compassion, and you will do it with honesty.”
Akande, who is Westminster’s first African American president and the United States’ first Nigerian-born president of a liberal arts college, said that he looks forward to a time when such accomplishments are no longer news.
“I’m not interested in being first,” he said. “I’m looking for seconds and thirds and fourths and fifths. I don’t want it to be an anomaly anymore. I don’t want to champion that kind of stuff. I want people to start thinking as this as just normal things that happen in the great country we call America.”
Near the end of his speech, Akande referred back to his Inaugural Address and the place he calls “yes.”
“I challenged our college to be prepared to be an exceptional place, which embraces a broad spectrum of possibilities,” Akande said.
He added that this place called “yes” is collaborative, proactive, and brings people together while challenging ideas. “’Yes’ will demand that each of us lead from where we are at Westminster College.”
Akande concluded with his thoughts on Westminster’s ability to be a leader in overcoming challenges.
“I really like our chances of being better than good,” Akande said. “And even though whatever happened just down the highway, off Highway 70 is serious and sad, I hope they can look at us as the ultimate benchmark for [an] institution that speaks to the issues that we confront and finds a way to overcome it.”