During the past weeks and months, disturbing, racially charged situations and tragic deaths have occurred across the U.S. – including Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Christian Cooper and most recently George Floyd. We are now witnessing protests in cities across the U.S., some of which have been marked by violence.
On our own campus we also recently experienced the impact of racially charged posts on social media made by incoming freshmen.
One student posted a disturbing video to My Story on Snapchat. A person in the My Story group re-posted it on Twitter. Perhaps the intent of the video can be debated. Its impact cannot.
Another student used an offensive racial slur while engaging in a social media exchange with a black student from her high school.
Many of you have reached out to share the hurt, anger and disbelief you experienced upon watching the video. It demonstrates a disturbing lack of empathy and respect for the death of Mr. Floyd, his family and others who have suffered similarly while in police custody.
Many others have expressed anger and disbelief at the nature and tone of the hurtful social media posts.
After seeing these social media posts and viewing the video, I, too, was horrified. My first impulse was to rescind the offer of admission to these students. But then I was reminded of a couple of things.
Missouri State University is a public university with a public affairs mission.
As a public university we are legally required to uphold the principles of free speech embodied in the First Amendment to the Constitution. The video – as hurtful, insensitive and offensive as it is – is protected by the First Amendment, as was the language in the social media posts.
I will admit that it was tempting to ignore the First Amendment in this case. Doing so would violate our legal obligations but, more importantly, it would effectively prevent the university from accomplishing its mission.
Missouri State has a responsibility to educate students on the three pillars of our public affairs mission – ethical leadership, community engagement and cultural competence. The video and the social media posts clearly reveal that these students – and, let’s be honest, many of us – are in desperate need of education, training and experiences that will help us develop cultural consciousness as well as cultural competence.
We cannot expect or require that students come to us fully formed, possessing all of the skills and characteristics that exemplify Citizen Scholars. It is our job and our duty to help them develop these traits through education and exposure.
Recognizing the impact of the video and the social media post, these students have chosen to withdraw from the university. We had planned to allow them to join our campus community in the fall, knowing that this decision would be ridiculed, questioned and second-guessed. But it was under the conditions that they participate in additional education and training to assist them in both understanding the impact of their actions and in developing cultural competence.
Social media is rife with opportunities to damage reputations or hurt thousands of people with one statement or one video. It is important that we are all mindful of its impact and if we choose to participate, to think very carefully before we post.
As one might expect, these students have been bombarded with hate, ridicule and even death threats. Both are 18 years old. While they displayed poor judgement, they don’t deserve to have their lives threatened.
As a university, we are acutely aware that many of our incoming students of all backgrounds may have made poor choices when posting on social media when they were teenagers. These are formative years when people change and grow. As a university, we are not going to police everyone’s social media accounts. We legally cannot and, in my opinion, should not bar a student from entry for offensive comments posted as an adolescent. I believe in grace, redemption and the probability that a college education can change people for the better. It did me.
That being said, we will continue to educate our students on the three pillars of our public affairs mission. And given the current environment, we will continue to give special emphasis to the awareness, knowledge and skills required to be culturally competent in a global society and world.
Thank you for all you do for Missouri State.
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