Leadership & Governance

Restoring Stability to an Institution Rocked by Protests

Michael A. Middleton, interim president, U. of Missouri system

February 02, 2016

Produced by Carmen Mendoza

Michael A. Middleton says the University of Missouri system, like most higher-education institutions, has never effectively dealt with the "serious scars" of systemic racism and discrimination against African-Americans. Now Mr. Middleton, the system's interim president, hopes to help Missouri grapple with those issues after the university became the birthplace of a surge of racial tensions across college campuses last fall.

Mr. Middleton's role is, in part, to bring stability to a system rocked by student protests at its flagship campus, in Columbia; the resignation of two top administrators; and widespread debate and criticism nationwide. Mr. Middleton has spent most of his adult life on the Columbia campus — as an undergraduate, a law student, a faculty member, and deputy chancellor. He retired last year but was chosen to lead the system after Timothy M. Wolfe stepped down under pressure in November.

Mr. Middleton spoke with The Chronicle about his observations of race relations at Missouri over the years and how he plans to lead in a time of turmoil.


SARAH BROWN: Hello, I'm Sarah Brown, a staff reporter here at The Chronicle of Higher Education. I'm joined today by Michael Middleton, interim president of the University of Missouri system. Mr. Middleton, welcome to The Chronicle.

MICHAEL MIDDLETON: Thanks for having me, it's great to be here.

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.

SARAH BROWN: So I wanted to start by talking a little bit about your personal background. You were one of the first black students to graduate from Missouri's law school. You then spent 30 years of your professional career there. How have you seen race relations on the campus evolve?

MICHAEL MIDDLETON: Well, the evolution has been slow, but certainly it's changed a great deal since I was there as a student. I was there in the '60s and early '70s. There were very few students of color then, and of course the tenor of the times then was different. So as the nation has advanced a bit in race relations and concern about diversity and inclusion, so has the University of Missouri. There are still issues, as you know, but I've been impressed with the change. Although I probably would've appreciated a greater pace of change.

SARAH BROWN: While you were Missouri's deputy chancellor, much of your work focused on improving racial equality on the campus. But in a recent letter written by former Missouri president Tim Wolfe, he said that you had failed miserably. I wonder what your response is to that.

MICHAEL MIDDLETON: I really haven't thought of a response to that yet. I'm busy trying to get this university back on its feet. I think my record, both at Missouri and in my career before coming back to Missouri to teach — I was a civil-rights lawyer here in Washington, in fact, for 15 years — I've been involved with this kind of work for a long time. And I think my record speaks for itself. To be perfectly clear, when I was deputy chancellor, my only responsibility was not diversity. I was the deputy chancellor, so I had a very broad scope of responsibility.

One of the things that I dealt with was trying to oversee our diversity efforts. We managed to increase the admissions of students of color over that time dramatically, from about 3 percent to around 8 percent now. We implemented a number of programs to try to include those newly acquired students in the mainstream of university life. But as with most universities in America, we're not there yet. And Missouri's no different.

SARAH BROWN: When you were named interim president, you said that Missouri needed to reckon with its history. What did you mean by that?

MICHAEL MIDDLETON: I mean that Missouri, again like most of the nation, has never dealt effectively with the serious scars that our racial history has caused in our culture. This country was founded on the ownership of an entire race of people — the failure to educate or the miseducation of those people. There was a struggle through abolition to abolish slavery. There was a brief period of some progress during Reconstruction, but that progress was quickly brought to a halt. There were years of Jim Crow laws in the South, segregation. All of that history is affecting us today in a number of ways.

I remember when I was a younger person, the Brown v. Board of Education decision, talking about how segregation did damage to the hearts and minds of black children, in ways unlikely ever to be resolved. I think they missed half of that equation. That history has done something to the hearts and minds of majority-group people in a country as well. And we need to recognize that fact and start building a new society, a new culture. And we need to rid our culture of those stereotypical views of people that have kept us down.

SARAH BROWN: You've been meeting for months with members of Concerned Student 1950, the student group at Missouri that led the recent protests. In this role as interim president, how far do you think those relationships with those students will take you?

MICHAEL MIDDLETON: I think they will give me a couple of weeks to see what I'm going to do. You know, my relationship with those students was not as strong as you might think. I met with Jonathan Butler, who is the young man who did the hunger strike that CS 1950 was behind, but I met with him in the context of an effort that our faculty had put together to try to figure out how to make certain that our white faculty members understood the nature of the problem. So the students had been complaining about microaggressions and marginalization, and isolation in the classroom, in the lecture halls, in life on campus. And so the Faculty Council created a race-relations task force.

I was a faculty member on that task force, along with three or four white faculty members, who, frankly, had the view that this race thing was not real. Jonathan Butler was a student on that task force, along with another African-American student. So I met with that group for probably, once a week since June or July of this year, to just talk about these issues. So I knew Jonathan, I knew of his passion, I knew of his concerns. And through him I met a few of his friends, who also became members of CS 1950.

The group didn't really become a group until much later in the process. So to say I have a relationship with that group is a bit misleading. I have a relationship with all of our students. And one of the things that I was doing for 17 years as deputy chancellor was to try to maintain contact with all of our students, and try to resolve and help them navigate the university system, and help them understand how to survive and be successful in that kind of an environment. I had some experience with that, so I figured I could help.

SARAH BROWN: You mentioned that there are some faculty members at Missouri, who, as you said, don't really believe the race thing is real. When you interact with people at Missouri who don't believe racism is a problem on campus, how do you connect with them? How do you approach them?

MICHAEL MIDDLETON: Well, I think I've got some credibility. And I think if you explain things to them calmly and rationally, and I try to find some analogous situations that they might relate to, it becomes a little clearer. What happened in that Race Relations Committee that was formed was that, over the summer, everyone in that room, despite their polar positions on this issue, came closer to the middle. The faculty that thought it was fiction began to realize, well, maybe there's something to this. The students, who thought it was obvious what was happening to them, began to realize how people might not understand, might not get it.

I think, when you sit down across the table with someone and get to know them personally, know their stories, then the stories are much more believable. And that's a process I'd like to be able to replicate across campus. Unfortunately, we don't have the numbers of people who are willing to go through that to make a real impact on the entire faculty.

SARAH BROWN: You're now in a position, as interim president, that's being watched closely by college and university leaders, by racial-justice leaders, and by many others. How do you see your role in this broader national conversation about race and higher education?

MICHAEL MIDDLETON: Well, I don't think one person can have much impact. What I hope to do is have these difficult conversations in a calm, intelligent way. And I have faith that, at a university particularly, people are interested in truth, people are interested in logic, people are interested in reason. And people really don't want to be the ones that diminish or marginalize others. And I have faith that we will get there through conversation, through example, and through mutual understanding and mutual respect. And that's kind of what I'm going to be talking about during my time as interim president.

SARAH BROWN: Great. Thank you so much for being with us today, Mr. Middleton. I really appreciate it.

MICHAEL MIDDLETON: Thank you very much for having me.