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The nation’s attention turned to the University of Missouri — better known as Mizzou — this week as a long simmering clash between student activists and the University came to a head with a series of dramatic events. The latest being the resignations of Mizzou President Tim Wolfe and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin, which came after members of the University’s football team, supported by their coach, joined the growing protest movement.
We talked with Anahita Zare of the Forum on Graduate Rights, which started back in August as a response to the University’s sudden defunding of graduate student health care subsidies. At the time the graduate students were informed of this change as a done deal.
“It was a lack of communication that hit me so hard,” said Zare. “At no point were any of the students consulted on this, we were told in an email with no notice, and we were just expected to fend for ourselves. We have a system of shared governance that should account for the student voice, but this voice is very diminished.”
This move by administrators came while the University was already mired in a controversy over what student activists saw as a non-response to racially charged tensions on campus.
“Campus has an electrified feel to it right now,” said Zare. “Activism has been growing all semester but it seems to be at a high lately. When [Jonathan Butler] committed to his hunger strike, it became very heightened, from my standpoint, very quickly. I felt like the national media coverage followed that by about a week.”
Butler — a member of the on-campus activist group known as Concerned Student 1950 — began his hunger strike in the wake of a swastika being smeared on a dorm’s wall. The symbol appeared on Oct. 24th, and Butler’s hunger strike began on the 6th. The beginning of the hunger strike also marked the beginning of a protest encampment on campus. Butler ended his hunger strike after Wolfe’s resignation yesterday.
“I think that this is the beginning of something. I’m relieved that the hunger strike has ended. I, and everyone else in the steering committee of FGR, was incredibly worried for JB’s health and for the safety of those at the encampment.”
The renewed focus on the University in recent weeks has galvanized the student activists on campus, and appear to be setting a tone for other student movements around the nation.
“There is a sense that eyes are on us,” said Zare. “Since August, I have heard that there are many universities looking to see what Mizzou will do in regards to unionization. I have been told by other graduate students at many universities that they are waiting to see how our union drive goes here. I think this attention goes beyond the union effort also now.”
While the bulk of the media attention has been on the dramatic turns of the last few days — particularly with the football team’s actions that raised the financial stakes for the University — the interplay between the different student movements has been driving those turns.
“There is a sense of that this is a coalition movement. I think this semester has shown the students at the University of Missouri how important a united voice can be.”
We asked Zare what she thought the future held.
“Specifically for FGR, we are focused on our union drive. Our collective bargaining will allow for us to be a stronger advocate for marginalized groups on campus. Beyond that, now that there will be great change within the administration, I hope to see meaningful cooperation between the Board of Curators and the students when selecting new administration.”
While the resignation of Wolfe met one of the demands of student protesters, the thornier issues of racial tension and graduate student unionization remain. The victory by student protesters, however, appears to have changed the dynamic of the national conversation for the moment, potentially emboldening other student movements at campuses nationwide.