Thoughts and Empathy for Students and Administrators at MU

UPDATE 11/9/15: Tim Wolfe has resigned his position, effective immediately. Read my thoughts on the situation here.

Today, in a church discussion group that I am a part of, the subject turned to the culture wars and a current political climate in which everyone seems to be shouting at each other rather than listening, and one in which the goal is to go for a win by tearing down the other side, rather than achieving long-term peace and understanding.  

The truth about political disagreements is that through listening and empathy, one can usually come to an understanding of where the other is coming from in their political views. You don't have to ultimately agree, but a relationship is not only possible, it can thrive.

And thus, we are presented with a choice. We can listen, be empathetic and seek understanding; or we can choose to win at all costs, even if it means tearing the other side down.

The current situation at the University of Missouri presents such a choice. The president of the four-campus system, Tim Wolfe, is under fire for not doing enough to address the concerns of students upset by racism on campus. In October, in response to several racist incidents, Mr. Wolfe was confronted by protesters interrupting his parade route during the university's homecoming parade. Rather than engaging with the protesters, he stayed in his car for 15 minutes until the police dispersed them. The result has been a hunger-strike by one student, a camp out by others, and a strike among at least 30 football players, all with the demand that they'll continue their protests until Mr. Wolfe resigns or is removed from office.

It would be easy in this situation to take the white-guy approach and say that these students are over-reacting. I could explain that the handful of instances where individuals engaged in gross displays of racism were isolated, committed by idiots, and weren't at all the fault of Tim Wolfe. I could tell them to move on with their lives and stop being so sensitive. I could tell them that presenting a list of "demands" is a poor negotiating tactic that puts an individual in a lose-lose situation. 

But to do so would be to dismiss the fact that racism is real, and has had a real impact on the lives of African-American students that I'll never know. I have to acknowledge that being white has made my life easier than if I was non-white, and being African-American has made their lives harder. Instances of racism directed at me, being in the majority, are annoying. When directed at a minority, they can be oppressive. These students have every right to be frustrated by it and demand that things change. Ultimately, the very thing that's easy for me to dismiss is the same thing that has driven a kid to not eat now for several days, and for a huge percentage of the football program to put their season, future and scholarships on the line. The pain is real for these students, and it's unfortunate they have to live with that pain.

If empathy and understanding can be extended to these student protesters, however, one can also ask that it be extended to MU administrators, particularly Mr. Wolfe. The incidents that started this were not his fault; they didn't happen because of anything he did or didn't do. Although he now regrets not engaging with protesters during the parade, can anyone say they for sure would have gotten out of the car, caught off guard such as he had to have been? And while the proposals he's put forth to address racism may not be enough for some, an effort has been made. It's clear that Mr. Wolfe's response to student outcry over racism hasn't been perfect, but it could also be argued that videos like this show that, for some, he's never going to be given the opportunity to get it right. Should an imperfect response to a challenge that's been plaguing man since the beginning of history really cost this man his current livelihood and harm his future career?

I don't know what the right answer is. Honestly, it's not my fight. But I do know that the end result could have real consequences for real individuals who have real futures and real families and real goals for the good things they would like to do in their lives.

I hope for everyone's sake that egos can be set aside, understandings formed, and bright futures can lie ahead. Just imagine how great it would be if at the end of all of this everyone could announce that they're going to work together and nobody has to lose. Let's hope cool heads prevail. Peace be to them all. 

RELATED: More thoughts on this story with the Jason Griffin Radio podcast

Jason Griffin is a former radio talk-show host who writes & podcasts about business, media, politics & life. Keep up with latest posts by liking on Facebookfollowing on Twitter, or subscribing with RSS.