COLUMBIA, Mo. — While the University of Missouri faculty appeared divided over the fate of Melissa Click, the majority of those within the renowned School of Journalism wanted her fired.
“I got emails from her side and a lot against her,” said UM Curator David Steelman in an interview. “The J-school people I heard from were unanimous. They wanted her gone. There was no hesitancy.”
Formerly a little-known communications professor, Internet videos have made Click infamous. They show her screaming at a photographer attempting to take videos of protesting students, and shouting an obscenity at a police officer trying to clear demonstrators from a Columbia street.
Steelman is one of four members of the Board of Curators that voted 4-2 to fire Click following an investigation. “Her actions in October and November are those that directly violate the core values of our university,” said Hank Foley, interim chancellor of the Columbia campus.
Click’s behavior and the official response to it have raised issues regarding the First Amendment, free speech, due process for faculty, and governance of the state’s largest and oldest public university. Click’s defenders say her actions are not much different from what the Board of Curators does to keep reporters at bay while deciding sensitive issues. And many faculty believe if Click’s conduct warranted scrutiny, it should have been handled by a faculty committee, not the Board of Curators.
But the controversy attached to Click is just one of the difficulties facing the four-campus system.
“There are a whole lot of problems out there in addition to Mizzou’s problems,” said Wayne Goode, a former member of the Board of Curators. The unsettled questions facing the university are substantial:
–The university needs a new system president to succeed President Tim Wolfe who abruptly resigned last November amidst turmoil on the Columbia campus. In the meantime, Mike Middleton is serving as interim president.
–The presidential search process could be affected by the fact that there are three vacancies on the nine-member Board of Curators. The Republican head of the state Senate has said Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, should not nominate any new curators this year, leaving it up to the next governor.
–The House has voted to cut $8.7 million from the UM System’s budget. The Columbia Daily Tribune has reported that new pledges and donations to the university fell $6 million in December, and anticipated enrollment may drop by 900 students, which roughly equates to a $20 million loss of tuition revenue.
While the university has less money coming in, it is spending more to rebuild its reputation. A reporter who recently visited the state capital found Middleton on the third floor, huddled with two of the university’s main legislative lobbyists, Martin Oetting and Stephen Knorr. Their job is to keep the university on good terms with the General Assembly.
Also involved in the meeting was Mark Schwartz, who works for Statehouse Strategies, the lobbying firm operated by Andy Blunt. Blunt is the son of U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo, and also the chairman of his father’s re-election campaign this year. The university is paying Andy Blunt $10,000 a month to help patch up the university’s relationship with lawmakers.
Click’s firing should help. Before the curators voted to oust her, 117 lawmakers had signed a letter calling for Click’s dismissal.
THE CURATORS’ INVESTIGATION
The curators suspended Click with pay on Jan. 27 and hired a law firm to investigate what happened on the campus beginning Nov. 9 when Click called for some “muscle” to prevent a videographer from recording the activities of student protesters. Earlier that day, Wolfe and Columbia campus chancellor R. Bowen Loftin had resigned.
The report by the St. Louis-based firm of Bryan Cave found that economic, political and racial forces combined to create the Columbia campus tensions last fall. Graduate students who taught classes were told they couldn’t get health care coverage. African-American students protested during the Homecoming Parade Oct. 10, blocking Wolfe’s car and complaining about racial incidents that had taken place on campus. Later that month they criticized Wolfe for not engaging with them and finally called for his dismissal.
On Nov. 2, a graduate student named Jonathan Butler said he would go on a hunger strike until Wolfe was removed from office. Student protesters, calling themselves Concerned Student 1950, set up a tent camp on the Carnahan Quadrangle that night in support of the hunger strike. Four days later, Wolfe apologized for the unacceptable problem of racism at the university, and he apologized for not engaging with students during the Homecoming Parade protest. On Nov. 7, African American players on the football team announced they would boycott games and practices until Wolfe resigned, and the team’s head coach, Gary Pinkel, supported them. A day later, Wolfe said he hoped all sides could come together, but Butler criticized the statement.
The same day as Wolfe’s statement, a group of graduate students announced a two-day walkout, and faculty members said they would join it. According to the law firm’s investigation, hundreds of African-American alumni announced their support for the protests. Then, to the surprise of the Board of Curators, Wolfe resigned Nov. 9.
“Resigning in the way he did, the university was giving into the protesters,” Steelman said. “I take the protests seriously. It’s part of the college experience. I don’t belittle it. You just can’t give in.”
Goode thought Wolfe was a “very good president,” and had he been on the curators’ board he would have encouraged Wolfe to stay.
“That was a bad move for the university and for him personally,” Goode said. “All that has caused further deterioration of the reputation of the university. But he had good reasons for resigning. There was a real threat facing the campus.” In a letter sent later, Wolfe wrote that he feared the demonstrations could become violent not unlike what happened in Ferguson.
Loftin resigned, too. He had lost faculty support, the deans said they had “no confidence” in him and he had earned Wolfe’s personal animosity.
“A LIFE-CHANGING EVENT”
Melissa Click, 45, had been with the university’s communication’s department since 2003. Last fall, she was an assistant professor seeking tenure. Her husband, Richard Callahan, is a professor in the Religious Studies Department. Click also held a courtesy appointment in the School of Journalism, which meant she served on graduate committees of students seeking master’s and doctoral degrees.
The law firm’s investigation said Click was with her husband and children watching the Homecoming Parade, when about 11 African American students entered the street and blocked Wolfe’s car. According to the report, Click became frustrated by the crowd’s lack of sympathy with the protesters, and she joined the African American protesters in the street. According to the report, Click told the law firm’s investigators in an interview that she argued with a Columbia police officer as he tried to move students out of the street to get the parade moving again. The report also noted a Feb. 13 account in the Columbia Missourian that included police body camera footage of the incident in which Click is reportedly telling a police officer to “get your f—ing hands off me.”
The law firm’s report said Click called her experience that day a “life changing event.” After it, she led a group of faculty who signed a statement supporting the protesting students and condemning racist acts on campus. The report also said that through contacts of her husband’s, she was able to encourage a Los Angeles Times reporter to come to Columbia to cover the protest. The report said Click talked to the reporter, and that the reporter’s story later attributed to Click a statement that Wolfe’s car “bumped into a protester” during the parade.
The report also said Click worked with other members of the faculty in drafting a statement that called for a two-day walkout by faculty, which she posted to a Facebook page she had created called Concerned Faculty 1950. She acknowledged that she did not want to post it to her personal Facebook page because she was in the process of going through tenure review at that time, the report said.
On the morning that Wolfe announced his resignation, journalists converged on the Carnahan Quadrangle to interview and photograph the jubilant protesters. One of the journalists was Tim Tai, a photojournalist student from St. Louis, who was freelancing for ESPN. As Tai attempted to enter the tent city, three MU faculty members were shown either blocking him or interfering with his attempts to take photos. At one point, Tai said he had a First Amendment right to take photos on public property. But the protesters, led by Click, chanted: “Hey, hey, ho, ho, reporters have got to go.” According to the report, Callahan raised his hands to block Tai’s camera lens. The report also said that Janna Basler, director of Greek Life, was among a group of people who formed a ring that pushed Tai back and away from the protesters.
Mark Schierbecker, a history and German student from the St. Louis County suburb of Rock Hill, recorded all of these events in a video that he later posted on You Tube. Accompanying the video, he wrote, “This is what civic-level censorship looks like at a university with the largest and oldest public college of journalism.”
As Basler and others were pushing Tai away, Schierbecker was able to get closer to the encamped protesters. As he approached Click with his camera, she yelled, “No, you need to get out, you need to get out.” Schierbecker replied, “No, I don’t.” At that point, according to the report, Click reached out and physically knocked Schierbecker’s camera ajar. She then walked towards a group of people and began to yell, “Hey who wants to help me get this reporter out of here?” And then, pointing to Schierbecker, Click said, “I need some muscle over here, help me get him out, who’s gonna help me?”
When Schierbecker told her that he had a right to be in a public place, owned by the university, Click said, “I know. That’s a really good one, and I’m a communication faculty and I really get that argument, but you need to go, you need to go, you need to go.” The report said Click continued to block his camera with her hand while she was yelling at him.
AT THE J-SCHOOL: “ALL HELL BROKE LOOSE”
If anything sets the University of Missouri-Columbia apart from other universities, it’s the Journalism School. The school’s reputation draws students from around the world, and the out-of-state tuition they pay goes a long way toward paying the university’s bills. What happened to Tai seemed like biting the hand that feeds you.
According to the report, when Schierbecker’s video went viral on You Tube and Facebook “all hell broke loose” at the Journalism School. Initially many believed Click was a member of the faculty by virtue of her courtesy appointment. Dean David Kurpius said Click’s actions were wrong and it was not her role to exclude the media and journalists from the area of protest. “Nobody should lay hands on a journalist as she did in reaching out and pushing Mark Schierbecker’s camera,” Kurpius said.
Brian Brooks, who retired as the school’s associate dean but who was still an adjunct member of the faculty, filed a harassment complaint with the school’s Title IX enforcement office based on what he saw on the video. Brooks later wrote a letter saying, Click’s actions “constituted a violation of the students’ civil rights because they had every right to be filming in a public place.”
The night of the incident, Mitchell McKinney, chair of the Communications Department, arrived home to find he had received more than 100 emails about Click’s conduct. According to the report, McKinney was not surprised. “She frequently gets upset and she can be loud in stating her opinions to faculty and students,” the report said. McKinney said he had no issue with Click being boisterous and vocal, but that he did not approve of physical intimidation and aggression. His personal reaction to the video was that Click had been wrong, and he put out a statement to that effect. McKinney later told investigators that Click and her allies believed that his statement amounted to throwing Click “under the bus.”
In the days that followed, Click, Basler and Callahan all apologized to Tai and Schierbecker. The Journalism School initiated a procedure to revoke Click’s courtesy appointment, but before that happened, she apologized to the school and resigned from that post. Basler was suspended with pay until January, and received a formal letter of reprimand from her department.
Schierbecker reported to campus police that Click had assaulted him. In January the Columbia city prosecutor charged her with third-degree assault. Under an agreement, if Click complies with community service and gets in no further trouble, no more criminal proceedings will be brought against her.
The university provost issued a formal letter of reprimand to Click. In response, she said she was sorry that her actions had negatively impacted the MU community but that she also believed the wording of the reprimand letter was “too harsh.” In December, about 100 members of the MU faculty signed a letter supporting Click. The Journalism School announced that Tim Tai had been selected as the recipient of the First Amendment Defender Award.
A Google search for “Melissa Click” generates an image of an angry woman, wearing glasses and shouting directly at the camera that has captured her at an emotional moment. Click hired a public relations firm to change how she appeared to the public, or at least put her actions into context. She agreed to be interviewed, and in mid February she wrote an op-ed column in the Columbia Daily Tribune under the headline: “Actions on Quadrangle Were Spontaneous, Instinctive and Regrettable.”
“I am deeply sorry for the mistakes I made that day and take full responsibility for my words and actions,” Click began. She described the tension percolating on the Carnahan Quadrangle and explained that “hateful and threatening incidents targeting black students” were on the minds of many people in the tent encampment. Click said she was predisposed to protect the encamped students from intruders.
“Unlike the numerous professional journalists I had met that day who introduced themselves with their names and affiliations, he (Schierbecker) introduced himself only as ‘media’,” Click wrote. “I felt concerned about why he was inside the circle when the majority of journalists respected the students’ requests for a few quiet moments.
“My regrettable call for ‘muscle’ was not a call for violence but instead a request for more experienced and taller members from the camp to come to my aid,” she added. “The temporary circle around the students was not intended to silence journalists or infringe on anyone’s rights, only to ask for a few moments of respect and courtesy while the students collected their thoughts.”
Click was given the chance to respond to the curators’ investigation. She said the videos needed to be viewed within the larger context. “While some would judge me by a short portion of videotape, I do not think that this is a fair way to evaluate these events,” she said.
But the videos and the law firm’s investigation were enough for the short-handed Board of Curators. When it issued the announcement that Click was fired, the board’s official statement said: “The board believes that Dr. Click’s conduct was not compatible with university policies and did not meet expectations for a university faculty member. The circumstances surrounding Dr. Click’s behavior, both at a protest in October when she tried to interfere with police officers who were carrying out their duties, and at a rally in November, when she interfered with members of the media and students who were exercising their rights in a public space and called for intimidation against one of our students, we believe demands serious action.
“The board respects Dr. Click’s right to express her views and does not base this decision on her support for students engaged in protest or their views. However, Dr. Click was not entitled to interfere with the rights of others, to confront members of law enforcement or to encourage potential physical intimidation against a student.”
Click has appealed the decision to the board, essentially asking it for reconsideration of its decision.
Faculty discipline is not the curators’ regular job. In fact, it’s hard to recall a time when the appointed stewards of the university interfered in the business of reviewing faculty conduct. The university has a procedure contained in its Collected Rules and Regulations, which have been approved by the curators, and which provide that administrators and faculty committees handle complaints of faculty misconduct. Many who have come to Click’s defense believe her case should have been dealt with through this procedure, rather than the extraordinary method of suspension, investigation and dismissal by the board.
Many faculty members said the curators should have given campus administrators a chance to handle the situation with the rules that were in place. The curators’ firing of Click made it appear as though the curators were caving in to outside pressure, especially from the legislature.
“By flouting the Collected Rules and Regulations of the University, the Board of Curators has caused needless injury to the University of Missouri,” said a statement issued by the MU Faculty Council.
The American Association of University Professors complained that while the curators said Click could appeal their decision to the board, “it has not provided her with a hearing before a faculty body.”
Hans-Joerg Tiede, associate secretary of the AAUP’s Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance, called on the board to rescind its termination notice and allow Click’s case to be handled according to the university’s rules.
John K. Wilson, an editor of Academe Magazine, which is published by the American Association of University Professors, wrote an opinion piece saying the action taken against Click was a violation of the First Amendment protections of academic freedom.
“The administration routinely keeps the media out of their spaces where they gather to plan strategies dealing with protesters, and a journalist who tried to enter their conference rooms would be quickly arrested,” Wilson wrote. “So why shouldn’t protesters have the same ‘safe spaces’ to privately discuss their plans?”
Wilson noted that Click has acknowledged she was wrong. “I can’t see how such a minor offense would deserve more than public criticism or perhaps a formal reprimand,” Wilson added.
“Let’s imagine that a campus police officer did the exact same actions that Click did, trying to prevent a student from recording the Board of Curators as they walked on campus. Does anyone imagine for a moment that these curators would impose a suspension of the campus cop? Or that prosecutors would file charges? Or that Republican legislators would demand the officer’s dismissal?”
THE STATE OF MIZZOU
In the field of higher education, competitors seem to be hoping to capitalize on MU’s misfortunes. One lawmaker has introduced a bill that would make it easier for Missouri State University in Springfield to offer engineering and doctoral degrees, which are now MU’s exclusive territory. Another has put in legislation making Lincoln University in Jefferson City the state’s “flagship campus.”
There was a time when the university could count on powerful friends in the Legislature to protect its flanks. At one time, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the chairman of the House Budget Committee were both from Columbia and made the university’s welfare a top priority. Those days are gone.
Now, one of the most vocal critics is Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Schaefer is seeking the Republican nomination for state attorney general. “Kurt has a new constituency and the constituency he is playing to is the statewide voters in the Republican primary,” said one former lawmaker.
Schaefer told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Click’s firing is “a step in the right direction.”
According to Steelman, “legislators had lost faith in the university’s ability to govern itself.
“Whether people should be symbols or not, symbols run the world,” Steelman said. “Melissa Click became a symbol that all of the good the university does is being overshadowed. We can do some remarkable things in bio-med, engineering and plant sciences. It doesn’t change the fact that great people are doing great work.”
Goode, who served for many years as a lawmaker in the state House and state Senate, said the Melissa Click issue was just one example of how university problems can be perceived and misunderstood in the Legislature.
“There have always been those in the Legislature, and it’s true to some extent, that the faculty doesn’t work,” Goode said. “They teach a couple of classes a week, and that’s all they do. That point of view has been there a long time.
“But the majority of the faculty work hard, teaching and on research, but the legislators don’t understand that. The Legislature has always had trouble understanding that issue, and when something like this comes up, it’s an opportunity to pile on, and you see that happening.”