The University of Missouri protests are a microcosm of a radical new set of rules and responsibilities for U.S. social institutions, the people who run them, and the people who want to overthrow them.
In an era of hyper-change and connectivity, the American public has never trusted their leaders less, and we’ve never had more power to undermine them. These two trends tug at the national fabric in ways that eventually will make us stronger—or cause us to come apart.
Tim Wolfe’s resignation as head of the University of Missouri system obviously sent chills down the spines of every college president—There but for the grace of God go I. But he wasn’t the first—and won’t be the last—master of a 20th-century universe ambushed by the manias of the 21st century: angry, empowered people demanding equality, efficiency, and transparency from American enterprises struggling to adapt to the change and churn of the new millennium.
No institution has been spared a loss of public faith—not police departments, churches, schools, banks, small and big businesses, organized labor, the medical profession, the media, the two major political parties, or government. Particularly not the media, political parties, and government.
If you’re in charge, and you’re not aggressively and preemptively addressing the public’s demands, you’re in peril. You’re Tim Wolfe, tossed from your corner office and left to wonder, What did I do wrong?
That’s a fair question, if not the right one. Little that preceded Wolfe’s resignation qualifies for what traditionally would be grounds for dismissal. This Washington Post story struggles to make sense of the outrage from a list of preceding events, including racial unrest at nearby Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, two swastikas etched on university walls, and racial slurs hurled at African-American students.
University officials condemned the epithets and established a diversity training program, albeit belatedly. Wolfe met with protesters and apologized, but not until well after he insulted them by refusing to get out of his car and speak to demonstrators during the homecoming parade. The student protest group demanded his resignation October 20, a graduate student began a hunger strike November 2, and the university’s football team—a popular and lucrative program—threatened a boycott November 7.
Just like that, Wolfe was done.
He underestimated the anger and power of the people he’s supposed to serve. He didn’t see the problem coming. He didn’t built relationships with the afflicted. He didn’t rally allies to address the root causes of his simmering problem. He didn’t use the people’s power to his advantage. It’s not what Wolfe did that cost him his job; it’s what he didn’t do.
In that sense, Wolfe is a reflection of failed leadership at every level of American life and certainly in Washington.
What if Wolfe had given the group’s leader the space, staff, money, and contacts necessary to develop diversity programs at the University of Missouri? It would have carried more weight than a legalistic apology, and it might have accomplished some good.
Sure, Wolfe would have risked losing control to students and losing face among his ivory-towered colleagues. He’d also be forced to share credit for any authentic and credible solutions that might have emerged from a bottom-up process.
Men like Wolfe hate to cede control. They hate to share credit. They hate—or don’t get—that a rising generation of millennials, shaped by economic and technological tumult, are rewriting society’s rules on the fly. Impatient for change, choice, and institutional disruption, young Americans are built to bring them all about.
Which is why it was so disappointing to see the protesters, egged on by an associate professor of mass media, misuse their power. “Hey, hey, ho, ho, reporters have got to go,” students chanted while blocking journalists from documenting their demonstration. Tim Tai, a student photographer on freelance assignment for ESPN, calmly set them straight. “I am documenting this for a national news organization,” Tai told the protesters, adding that “the First Amendment protects your right to be here and mine.”
In that moment, the protesters became what they protested: An institution clinging to its power, fearing transparency and a loss of control. Posted to the group’s Twitter account was this plea: “We ask for no media in the parameters so the place where people live, fellowship, & sleep can be protected from twisted insincere narratives.”
Question: Who builds parameters to protect against the intrusion of people who might upset their public-relations narrative? Answer: university presidents.
Who questions the sincerity of narratives that contradicts their own? Political leaders, police chiefs, ministers, CEOs, school superintendents, union bosses, and, yes, political columnists.
We live in a world so crazy that each one of us has the power to disrupt an institution—and become one ourselves.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.