Mizzou Resignations Raise Question: What Might HR Have Done Differently?

Complaints of racial discrimination, few faculty of color, persisted for months
  
 

By Dana Wilkie Nov 10, 2015
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The resignations of University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin—following complaints that they failed to address racial discrimination of students and to hire more faculty of color—raises the question of how HR professionals should try to avert similar crises at their own organizations.

Both announced their resignations Nov. 9, 2015, after student groups pressed for their departures, one student went on a hunger strike, black student football players threatened a boycott of future games, and the university’s faculty planned a walkout—which may still happen—to press for more diversity in hiring and curricula.

The university’s HR department referred SHRM Online to the school’s chief spokesman, John Fougere. Fougere did not reply to a phone call or e-mail.

Experts said that when staff and students are as disillusioned as those at the University of Missouri, it’s HR’s responsibility to report problems to an organization’s leaders.

“If my HR director doesn’t come to my door and say ‘You’ve got to do something,’ they’re not worth anything to me,” said Howard Ross, a diversity training consultant and author of Everyday Bias (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). “Some of this is the responsibility of the [university] leaders, but it’s also the responsibility of the HR director. HR’s job is to be willing to shake the trees and rattle the fences and do whatever is needed to get [a leader’s] attention.”

In his resignation speech, Wolfe used terms that many HR professionals employ when suggesting how to calm friction between an organization and its employees.

“We stopped listening to each other,” Wolfe said at a news conference. “We didn’t respond or react. We got frustrated with each other. And we forced individuals to take immediate action or unusual steps to effect change. This is not, I repeat not, the way change should come about. Change comes from listening, learning, caring and conversation.”

Black student groups have complained for months about racial slurs and other incidents on the system's overwhelmingly white campus in Columbia. The University of Missouri-Columbia has 35,000 students, 79 percent of them white and 8 percent black.

In August, someone used feces to draw a swastika on university property, prompting outrage from black and Jewish student organizations. In addition, black students complained that a school safety officer didn't pursue an apparently drunken white student who disrupted their gathering and used a racial slur when speaking to them.

Graduate student Jonathan L. Butler started a hunger strike last week, demanding Wolfe's removal. Butler wrote to Missouri officials that "students are not able to achieve their full academic potential because of the inequalities and obstacles they face," according to the Columbia Missourian, a university newspaper. "In each of these scenarios, Mr. Wolfe had ample opportunity to create policies and reform that could shift the culture of [the university] in a positive direction, but in each scenario, he failed to do so."

This past weekend, 30 black football players at the university announced they wouldn't participate in team activities, including games, until Wolfe was removed. Their coach sided with them. CNN reported that a canceled game could cost the university $1 million over a single weekend.

“The first thing the president should have done was to make clear that he saw this as a serious issue—but in fact his statements indicated it was sort of business as usual,” Ross said. “When they feel they’re being taken seriously, most people have some patience.”

Elisa Glick, a professor in the university’s English department, told CNN that she organized a threatened faculty walkout to keep pressure on the administration to inspire “reforms in terms of diversity curriculum and [hiring] more faculty of color.” Despite the president’s resignation, she told CNN, the walkout may still take place. 

“HR may not have been able to stop the walkout at this point,” said Mary-Frances Winters, president of the Winters Group, a diversity consulting firm. “It seems like the situation had already gone too far. They needed to be more proactive in dealing with the issues. I think now HR should be working with the [university] board and other leadership to craft a strategy that will give assurance that the situation is being taken seriously and there is a plan. I also think that those who craft the solution should include students, faculty and staff. HR can be an important catalyst and facilitator.”

Loftin, who was chancellor of the Columbia campus, spearheaded a diversity initiative designed to “expand opportunities for faculty, students and staff to engage and thrive in an increasingly diverse environment,” according to the university’s website.

A call to Loftin’s diversity initiative office was not returned.

“When I read that the university recommended ‘online diversity’ training, this told me everything I needed to know about the culture of this organization,” said Karen Michael, president of Richmond, Va.-based KarenMichael PLC, which provides companies with HR and employment law advice. “Online training is not effective to change behaviors. True change happens not with legal jargon and computer training, but with group sessions where people can feel free to express how they feel, ask questions, push the instructor about their frustration with the message and then come to the right result.”

Although student complaints should probably have been handled by academic deans rather than HR offices, Michael said, there were enough legitimate complaints among university faculty for HR to pay attention.

“Students turn over every four years," she said. "But for faculty who stay, the issues of equal rights should be ingrained in everything they do based on the university’s ongoing stance of civil rights. If faculty is feeling that there is racism in the system, that tells me that we are failing to live our values, and promote our culture.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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