There’s a rumbling going on at college campuses across this nation. Racial tensions are high. For years, students have complained about racism and the lack of diversity in both the student body and faculty at the nation’s institutions of higher learning, only to have their concerns fall on deaf ears. So they have taken to the streets. There have been protests at Yale, Ithaca College and Claremont McKenna, where the dean of students recently resigned.
Their voices are finally being heard, or so it seems.
At Yale, for example, the university has pledged $50 million to increase the diversity of its faculty.
The world is watching the tense situation at the University of Missouri, which recently appointed an African-American former administrator, Michael Middleton, as interim president of the university system. But for years, minority students had complained of racial incidents. When a swastika drawn with feces was found on a campus wall, the students said enough was enough. A group of protesters calling themselves Concerned Student 1950, in reference to the first year African-American students were admitted to the university, finally decided to stand their ground.
Graduate student Jonathan Butler went on a hunger strike, and Mizzou’s mostly black football team threatened to boycott games until the school’s president resigned. Indeed, on Nov. 9, University of Missouri President Timothy Wolfe stepped down. A day later, Chuck Henson, associate dean for academic affairs and trial practice at the University of Missouri School of Law, was appointed interim vice chancellor for inclusion, diversity and equity—a newly created position—at the school.
“Everyone who is in this community is working very hard to move our relationship with each other forward,” said Henson in a teleconference with a group of reporters.
Henson says that his first step in the new role is just to listen.
“The concerns aren’t limited to the student body,” Henson noted. “These are concerns of everybody in the community, and there are concerns about everyone’s voice being heard; there are concerns about everyone having a fair opportunity in their education.”
A former assistant attorney general in the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, Henson earned his bachelor’s degree from Yale and a law degree from Georgetown University. He began his tenure at the University of Missouri in 2009, where he’s served as an adjunct professor, a visiting professor and a trial-practice professor of law. Henson’s academic scholarship focuses on Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
“The message I received as part of the student movement was a message of inclusion for everyone,” Henson said. “It’s my job to make sure the idea of inclusion stays front and center.”
Henson said that he understands the students’ pain and passion. He’s aware of their frustration over the pace of change. Henson also acknowledged, however, that in his interim position, he had little power to make any substantive immediate changes. Instead, he said, he will continue to try to move things forward, just as Middleton did years before his retirement last summer as deputy chancellor.
“I will keep things moving forward and focus on the process—by which I mean regular engagement, conversation, listening, developing these conversations into issues that need to be addressed, going from there to action items and then executing on those action items,” said Henson.
But it’s going to be a long road. Henson has already noted the massive “expenditure of fiscal and emotional energy” that he’s experienced in the short time since his appointment. But continued incidents, including recent social media threats to African-American students and vandalism at the university’s Gaines-Oldham Black Culture Center, has Henson committed to the cause. He choked up as he thought about the “suffering that everyone in our community is going through.”
“My plan is to spend myself completely in building relationships and seeing that we move forward together,” Henson said.
Lottie L. Joiner is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.