Melissa Click, U. of Missouri Professor Who Riled Free-Speech Advocates, Is Fired

February 25, 2016

Mark Schierbecker, AP Images
Melissa Click, an assistant professor of communication, was caught on camera in November trying to prevent a student journalist from covering a protest.
Melissa A. Click, the assistant professor of communication whose actions during a student protest last fall sparked national outrage, was fired by the University of Missouri’s Board of Curators on Wednesday night, system leaders announced on Thursday.

"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," read a statement announcing the decision. "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."

Ms. Click has in recent months become a lightning rod in state politics, with lawmakers doggedly demanding her resignation and colleagues jumping to her defense, alleging that she had not been afforded due process.

Henry C. (Hank) Foley, the Columbia campus’s interim chancellor, said in a call with reporters on Thursday that the process the board had used to fire Ms. Click was "not typical, but these are extraordinary times in our university’s history."

Turmoil at Mizzou

Last fall student protests over race relations rocked the University of Missouri's flagship campus, in Columbia, and spawned a wave of similar unrest at colleges across the country. Read more Chronicle coverage of the turmoil in Missouri and its aftermath.

A spokeswoman for Status Labs, a public-relations firm working with Ms. Click, said on Thursday that the professor had no comment on the decision.

‘Some Muscle’

Ms. Click was caught on camera in November calling for "some muscle" to help remove a student journalist from a campus protest he was covering. The professor had been helping to enforce a boundary around an encampment, on the main quad, where students had gathered with members of the faculty and staff to protest racism at the university. Her actions made her an instant villain to people worried that free speech on campuses was being curtailed to create "safe spaces."

Ms. Click apologized for her actions, but was eventually charged with assault. She pleaded not guilty and agreed to do community service to avoid prosecution. But Republican legislators in Missouri made it clear that they wanted her fired.

In January, 117 state lawmakers signed a letter calling for her termination. Ms. Click’s university colleagues countered with a letter of support for the embattled professor signed by more than 100 faculty members.

The standoff continued in February. A top state lawmaker this week threatened $7.7 million in budget cuts for the University of Missouri system, including a $400,000 cut for the flagship campus: the equivalent of the combined salaries of Ms. Click, her department chair, and her dean. (The student who had filmed Ms. Click at the protest asked legislators to stop using the video as a pretext for cuts.)

‘Not Justifiable’

The news of Ms. Click’s firing may be a step toward repairing the university’s strained relationship with the General Assembly, said State Rep. David Wood, a Republican and chairman of the Joint Committee on Education, in an interview with The Chronicle.

"I support their move," said Representative Wood, who oversaw a recent committee hearing at which several legislators asked university officials about the terms of Ms. Click’s contract and what actions they were taking to respond to her actions as caught on video.

Mr. Wood said he didn’t think legislators were necessarily intent on having Ms. Click fired, but they wanted to know if the university was taking steps to make sure a similar occurrence didn’t take place in the future. "Her actions were not justifiable in any way," said Mr. Wood.

“Professors have a right to protest and to speak in public, but they're going to be held to a higher standard when they're representing the university.”
"Professors have a right to protest and to speak in public, but they’re going to be held to a higher standard when they’re representing the university," he said.

In the call with reporters, the chair of the board, Pamela Q. Henrickson, said that board members were "aware" of lawmakers’ statements about Ms. Click but that they "did not take that into account."

The board’s decision to fire Ms. Click occurred about a month after it suspended her and enlisted Bryan Cave, a law firm, to investigate the November incident. Ms. Henrickson told reporters that investigators had reviewed hundreds of documents and had interviewed more than 20 people — including Ms. Click, twice.

‘A Terrible Decision’

Faculty leaders at the university were upset by the board’s decision to take Ms. Click’s fate into its own hands. In a letter last month, the Faculty Council on the flagship campus asked the board to back off and let the university judge Ms. Click’s actions according to a procedure, spelled out in its bylaws, that was designed to "protect the rights of accused faculty while also protecting the university’s interest in identifying and responding to faculty irresponsibility."

Faculty leaders on the university system’s other campuses this week endorsed that position. The American Association of University Professors has also weighed in, expressing concern that Ms. Click was being denied due process.

Henry F. (Hank) Reichman, a professor emeritus of history at California State University-East Bay and chairman of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, said in a post on the association’s Academe blog that the board’s decision "makes a sham of shared governance and due process." He said Ms. Click had "clearly been made a scapegoat, and the actions of the board and interim chancellor are shameful."

Ms. Click has 'clearly been made a scapegoat, and the actions of the board and interim chancellor are shameful.'
But no one on the campus filed a complaint against the professor, Ms. Henrickson said, a step that would have triggered the university’s own procedures. "No one took the opportunity to avail themselves of that process," she said, so the board began its own.

In a written statement on Thursday, the chair of the Columbia campus’s Faculty Council, Ben Trachtenberg, said the board had "made a terrible decision."

"Regardless of one’s opinion of Professor Click’s behavior or fitness for duty," he continued, "she was entitled by our rules — rules that the Board of Curators has approved — to a fair process. She didn’t get it."

Eric Kelderman contributed reporting to this article.

Steve Kolowich writes about how colleges are changing, and staying the same, in the digital age. Follow him on Twitter @stevekolowich, or write to him at steve.kolowich@chronicle.com.