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University of Mississippi Associated Student Body President Joshua Mannery (left) and Black Student Union President Nicholas Crasta (right) point to “momentous strides both symbolically and substantially” at UM. But, they write, a lack of transparency on both problems and solutions underway hamper that progress and the experiences of marginalized students. Photo by Abby Johnston
University of Mississippi Associated Student Body President Joshua Mannery (left) and Black Student Union President Nicholas Crasta (right) point to “momentous strides both symbolically and substantially” at UM. But, they write, a lack of transparency on both problems and solutions underway hamper that progress and the experiences of marginalized students. Photo by Abby Johnston

Perpetuating Patterns: It’s Time To Build A Better University of Mississippi

We love The University of Mississippi. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be here trying to make it better. 

For as much time and energy we’ve spent being critical of this institution’s imperfections, it has always been out of a strong desire to see this campus reach its fullest potential and usher in a shift in the way its marginalized communities are treated and respected. Student leaders dedicate a lot of time to addressing things that our UM senior administrative leadership can simply do to appease students, but it is just as critical that we talk about the much-needed establishment of a culture that openly and actively embraces diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). 

Although the university has made momentous strides both symbolically and substantially, as student leaders we would be doing a disservice to our positions and the many diverse communities we represent if we didn’t challenge the problematic patterns that exist that diminish the student experience at UM.

It’s important to state that we are not exclusively deciding to speak for communities we don’t identify with. These feelings and concerns stem from multiple dialogues, conversations, and shared experiences with multiple students and student organizations who share a strong belief in the potential for UM to realize the power and responsibility that comes with being the flagship university of Mississippi. While the decisions that remove names, symbols and other ties to the Confederacy on our campus are integral, none of that means a thing if we continue to allow anti-DEI mindsets to persist throughout our campus stakeholders.

The Repetitive Cycle of UM Crisis Management

One of the most immediate patterns we’ve become accustomed to is the repetitive cycle of crisis management from the institution, especially in regard to race-related issues. If the incident is large enough to warrant a public response, the university typically tends to acknowledge what happened and reaffirm the values that we all live by, noticeably lacking any next steps or actual substance. Often, that acknowledgement  feels accompanied by a noticeable use of generalization. 

This approach has, for so many students, felt like an intentional effort to minimize any damage to the UM brand rather than assuage the distress of those affected.

UM Associated Student Body President Joshua Mannery (left) and Black Student Union President Nicholas Crasta (right) lead a student protest due to the university’s lack of transparency throughout the removal of a Confederate statue to a cemetery on campus. Photo by Viviek Patel

This concern is then exacerbated by a lack of transparency, whether regarding incidents, behind-the-scenes planning or communication with donors.  When we find out about racist incidents that happened within our institution’s community from the national news and not the university itself, that is a problem.  Many decisions that the university makes are without any input from student leaders, and this leaves students behind in the process.  

Additionally, the university does not spotlight measures that are taken to improve the student experience, leaving students and the UM community without awareness of important work that is being done.

Another area of concern is the university’s trend of not taking accountability when they find themselves facing negative publicity. As students who have direct stake in the outcomes of these situations, we would like to see UM normalize taking ownership of fault and making more public commitments to be and do better.

Reshaping the Narrative: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Coming off a summer that has sparked numerous discussions about equity and support throughout the UM community, the university finds itself in a situation where they have the capacity to begin reshaping the narrative around the principles of DEI on this campus. Instead of continuing in the current trajectory, the university can create new patterns and shift the way that this campus approaches diversity, equity and inclusion.

That culture shift begins with our UM community from the top-down serving as better allies to not only Black campus stakeholders, but to our Asian-American, Hispanic, LGBTQ+, International and other communities all across the board as well. 

So many dedicated offices and departments here on campus have championed inclusivity and equity measures for the past few years, with most of them investing in us either directly or indirectly to even be in these positions. The university runs the risk of undercutting and undermining its efforts by making partial commitments to the areas of DEI rather than fully and publicly embracing those initiatives and ideas.

While the generational advocacy and hard work carried out by marginalized student leadership throughout the last decade is nothing short of phenomenal, the fact that they even have to devote so much of themselves into pushing for symbolic victories is a worrying signal of what more fundamental, equitable initiatives and measures will look like. If we don’t see more allyship in bringing these ideas to life, students will continue to overtax themselves and put themselves in the line of danger fighting for what this campus can and should be.

The university must further that allyship by continuing to require and normalize DEI training for every campus stakeholder, especially for those in leadership positions. Microaggressions exist. Privilege exists. Unequal access exists. But if we don’t educate when and where we can, the momentum ends with outgoing leadership.  If the university takes this action to empower education always, we can start new patterns of equity within the institution.

UM cemetery protest
Students at the University of Mississippi march around the Tad Smith Coliseum next to the old Confederate cemetery during the summer of 2020. They feared it would become a new shrine based on UM renderings released at the last minute. Photo by Paul Gandy

When violations of the values we respect and live by as UM members occur, though, we have to be able to respond in a manner that doesn’t implicitly enforce racism and prejudice with just a slap on the wrist or even no punishment at all. 

Every incident doesn’t require suspension or expulsion, but if we don’t invest in amending our M Book to take stronger stances against clear infringements of our Creed and require restorative-justice measures, we aren’t properly protecting our impacted students. The university must take a strong stance against racism, so that in the future we can have a better response to these incidents and stand by marginalized communities.

The university must hire more diverse faculty and staff, and actually elevate them to contribute to the decision-making process. It hurts to see the people we have learned so much from leave this institution, and while we aren’t here to speculate as to why they did, many former employees have publicly spoken in great detail about the challenges of being a minority employee here at UM. If we don’t make intentional efforts to retain our faculty and staff, the student body will feel the losses in more ways than one.

‘We Want to Love This Campus Just as Much as Everyone Else’ 

Much of this boils down to more honesty and transparency toward the UM community. No one expects this institution to be perfect. In fact, our imperfections often create moments of triumph like a state flag coming down or a history-making homecoming king

But, there has to be inclusiveness all around to ensure that the right perspectives and voices are being heard. The university has laid the foundation; however, without students serving as integral components in the decision-making process, the lack of transparency can cloud the good work being done.

Students at the University of Mississippi stand together with fists raised on June 30, 2020, protesting the controversial monument relocation plans that roiled the college over the summer. Photo by Paul Gandy

At the heart of it all, the University of Mississippi should always strive to simply do the right thing. There is still so much to explore when it comes to healing and repairing from our history, but none of that matters if current students don’t feel supported and nurtured by this institution.

Marginalized students are an integral part of this university’s future. We contribute to the achievement, scholarship and development of this institution in undeniably critical ways, and the importance of our feelings about this campus after we leave cannot be understated. We want to love this campus just as much as everyone else. 

A change in mindset. A change in pattern. The time for change is now. We have the passion, drive, and momentum to be better, and we owe it to the future generations of students of this university to do so. We have the opportunity to change the narrative of this university. It’s time we finally made good on the work started in 1962.

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and factcheck information to [email protected] We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.

Also see: From Racist Emails to ‘Witch Hunts’: A UM Emails Timeline

Watch: Reporter Ashton Pittman and Editor Donna Ladd discuss the series during the 2021 Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism ceremony (40:00) and read more about the award here.

Read the full UM Emails reporting series to date:

  1. ‘The Fabric Is Torn In Oxford’: UM Officials Decried Racism Publicly, Coddled It Privately
  2. ‘The Ole Miss We Know’: Wealthy Alums Fight To Keep UM’s Past Alive
  3. UM’s ‘Culture Of Secrecy’: Dean Quit As Emails Disparaging To Gay Alum, Black Students Emerged
  4. ‘Appalling’: UM Provost Decries ‘Hurtful’ Emails About Black Women, Gay Alum
  5. Ole Miss’ Coddle Culture: Ole Miss Will Stay ‘Ole Miss’ Without Radical Shift
  6. EDITOR’S NOTE: The Decisions, Process, Motives Behind Ashton Pittman’s Series On UM Emails
  7. Perpetuating Patterns: It’s Time To Build A Better University Of Mississippi
  8. After UM Emails, Dean Plans ‘Anti-Racist’ Training, Donor Changes to ‘Remake Our School’
  9. ‘Ole Miss’ Vs. ‘New Miss’: Black Students, Faculty On How To Reject Racism, Step Forward Together
  10. UM Closely Guards Climate Survey Providing Window Into Social Issues, Sexual Violence
  11. UM Probes Whistleblowers Who Exposed Racist Emails As Ex-Dean Keeps $18,000 Monthly Salary
  12. ‘Our Last Refuge’: UM Faculty ‘Terrified’ As Officials Target Ombuds In Bid To Unmask Whistleblowers
  13. ‘Like He Was Disappeared’: UM Faculty Fear Retaliation After Ombudsman Put On Leave
  14. UM Appoints Acting Ombuds As Weary Faculty See Effort To ‘Stamp Out’ Anti-Racism Voices
  15. UM Retaliating Against Ombudsman for Protecting Visitors’ Privacy, Org Says
  16. UM Accuses Ombudsman of ‘Raising False Alarms’ Over Whistleblower Investigation
  17. A Matter Of Trust: UM Controversy Shows How Ombuds Programs Should, Shouldn’t Function, Expert Argues
  18. UM Pursuing ‘Criminal Investigation’ Into Whistleblowers Who Exposed Racist Emails
  19. Ombuds ‘Exonerated’ As UM Emails Whistleblower Hunt Fails to Identify Sources
  20. Will Norton, Ex-Dean in ‘UM Emails’ Race Saga, Quietly Departs University

 

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