This is not the post that I had planned to put up on this site today. That post is coming and is about a few people near and dear to the hearts of the UAB Family. Things can happen quickly, though, and this post is more timely and, honestly, more needed.
Imagine for a minute this scenario. There is an issue at a university that is, for lack of a better term, part of the culture of the institution. That issue has been ignored for years and never really addressed. Finally, there is a manifestation of that issue that leads to a major situation with the football team and serious student outrage. The social media storm ramps up into full-blown battle mode, the students and alumni (and a shocking number of the faculty who can speak out) are at DEFCON 1, and all sorts of activism hell breaks loose. The media is involved and runs into issues with some of the school’s employees over issues of access. Almost as suddenly, some of the demands are met and everyone calms down some.
What I just described to you is the UAB story, right?
This is the story of the University of Missouri, or one presentation of it.
It is somewhat natural to compare the recent UAB events to the Mizzou story, and, to be honest, we should look at both stories. To be fair and honest, the entire story of the Watts era at UAB has not been told and is not over, so it is not time. Likewise, the entire story about the recent events at the University of Missouri has not been told and is not over, so it is not time. But, humans love to just jump into the story, no matter what chapter it is on or it is finished at all, and I am no exception.
To recap the University of Missouri (from here on UM) story, there have been recent claims that there is an increase in racially charged episodes on campus. Many of the protesters claim that the entire school has been awash in a culture of sexism and racism for decades. Some of this is fueled by hyper-sensitivity to racial events since the issues in Ferguson, Missouri, over the past year.
You need to understand that while the sensitivity might be heightened, you cannot dismiss the claims just because of that. Perception changes with outside stimuli. If people are more attuned to certain words, phrases, or actions, they are more likely to notice them. One cannot dismiss these claims as being fake or “blown out of proportion” without examining the entirety of the facts. As the tensions grew, and more and more students joined into the protest movement, the school president did take some steps to resolve the problem, but they were seen as too little, too late.
After an incident during the Homecoming parade, the president was placed directly in the anger crosshairs, and the demands started to include his termination. With one graduate student in a hunger strike, members of the football team announced that they would boycott any football activities until the issues were resolved and the president was gone. The majority of the football team joined with the boycotting group, and the coach tweeted a statement that the team was unified, indicating to most that the team will not play out the rest of their season. Within 72 hours, the president had resigned, followed by the chancellor.
Now, when we look at the UAB situation, we have a group of students and supporters who have claimed that a hostile culture exists within the system, and that hostility is directed at UAB and the UAB Family. For the most part, those claims were ignored or marginalized. Suddenly, stories of a movement to end football were brought to the public eye. Despite claims to the contrary, the decision to end football had been made before the 2014 season started, and while ignoring a season in which UAB football qualified for a bowl game, the team was, in fact, terminated in December of 2014.
Six months of media coverage and protests followed, ending with the Birmingham community coming together in an unprecedented way to force UAB to restore the terminated football, rifle, and bowling programs as well as allow UAB to raise money and improve facilities.
The two stories are very different when fleshed out, so let us return to the abstract. In the most abstract way, the UM student movement and the #FreeUAB movement had the same goal: to be heard and to have those concerns legitimately addressed. In the most abstract way, the mechanism was the same: protests and social media activism. In both cases, you had faculty involved, you had major money issues come into play, and you had the nation focused on what was happening.
But, even in the abstract, the differences must be noted. While both groups claim a “culture of mistreatment and oppression,” one is speaking to a microcosm of society as a whole, while the other is talking about a small group of landed gentry who treat a multi-billion dollar state institution as a toy. Solving the issues at UM is much more difficult than solving them at UAB.
In the abstract, the UM protesters are looking at a win of sorts, as the president did resign. UAB, on the other hand, did see the return of the terminated sports, but there have been no significant changes in governance at this time. UAB is, however, seeing some changes in the policies of the UA Board of Trustees in the areas of fundraising and facility construction that give hope to the UAB Family. So in the abstract, one movement won and the other is gaining ground.
Yet, even in the abstract, that is not fair to say. If the UM situation is really just indicative of something much larger in society, replacing every faculty member there will not solve the problems. If the UAB situation is really just about being treated fairly and gaining some measure of freedom, these small wins are actually huge in the grand scheme of things.
In the UM situation, the football team became the tipping point. In the UAB situation, the football team became the tipping point as well, but for different reasons. UM was faced with losing millions of dollars in penalties for not putting a team on the field. The UAB administration was willing to lose millions of dollars in both killing the program and in fighting against the #FreeUAB people.
In both cases, people rallied around the football team in ways that they would not have had it been any other program. While UM might have seemed unwilling to discuss the issues with the protesters, one adviser to UAB actually called the situation a state of “war” against the students and alumni.
The president of the school refused to meet with anyone, including the local government. The media involvement seems different as well. In the UM case, the media was limited in access to the movement overall, while at UAB, the media was a key part of it. The UM story moved faster, though, so it is hard to say what might have happened with time.
One of the largest differences that I can see, though, as an outsider to the UM movement and someone involved in the #FreeUAB movement is that one seemed to quickly lose sight of any clearly defined goals and border on a mob mentality, while the other maintained both focus and cohesion.
At no point in time did it seem like the #FreeUAB movement needed to ban press from meeting with members, call “muscle” to have press removed from areas, and so on. The UM movement seems, at least on the outside, to not have the clear goals needed to maintain an organized movement. And, with any movement, the second you drift into the area of the mob, you lose both control and the ability to control the message. And then, you lose the moral high ground.
Part of the UM story concerns a concept of “microaggressions.” Simply put, microaggressions are actions or situations that either overtly or subtextually reinforce racial or other stereotypes and constructs. A better way to think about it is that microaggressions are little things, or big ones, that keep people in their place. One part of the concept of microaggressions is the use of “trigger words.” Trigger words are coded language that seeks to evoke a response only from the target group while seeming harmless to the outside world.
Ironically, the same claim can be made about the UAB situation. At UAB, it goes like this: words such as “commuter school” are meant to imply that UAB students are not worthy of the University of Alabama, “urban campus” means “full of crime and minorities,” and “research institution” means “not one bit of fun to be had anywhere around there and only right for biomedical geeks.”
From an institutional culture standpoint, in the UA System, UAB was not allowed to issue bonds to expand the athletic facilities, raise money for the teams (especially football), invest in the Greek System, and had to fight tooth and nail to get silly things like dorms or parking decks built.
UAB was expected to exist in a world of “good enough for you” while UA existed in world of “nothing is out of reach.” No, I am not saying that the UAB situation is the same as a culture of sexism or racism, which is claimed by the UM protesters. I am saying, however, that the idea of a culture that seeks to work against the student body can exist, even in a successful university (or despite it).
The problem here is that sometimes, as Freud once said, a cigar is just a cigar. While UAB people may feel that something is an intentional slight, it might not be. The same might be true with the UM protesters. Another aspect is that sometimes, you just have to deal with it. Either there is nothing that can be done to change it (for example, one of the cases at UM involved someone driving by and yelling a racial slur) or the situation is more of a by-product of the larger state of things and cannot be changed so easily (for example, UAB will not have the same number of alumni due to being 1/3 as old as UA and having a smaller student population). Hostile environments do exist. Coded language does exist (for both good and bad; ad agencies use it all the time).
In the end, though, the two movements are similar in that college kids actually did something to effect change. Beyond that, though, the two movements are as different as they are similar, or more so.
Ralph Harbison is a business consultant and personal, business, and wellness coach based in Birmingham. Ralph is also a co-founder and chairman of Dragon PAC, a state political action committee dedicated to education transformation in Alabama. For more about Ralph, visit ralphharbison.com and to help Dragon PAC, visit dragonpac.org.