How did a story about black students protesting their university’s response to racist incidents turn into a story about the fate of a white professor?
Last fall, Melissa Click, a communications professor at the University of Missouri, captured national attention during racial protests on campus.
As black students gathered on a public quad in Columbia, Mo., she was captured on video calling for “muscle” to remove student journalists from the area and swatting a student’s camera.
The video sparked debate among activists, conservatives and journalists over what was acceptable behavior for an academic and whether she should be punished. In the media, questions about her future had overtaken the demands of the protesters.
This week, university leaders decided they’d heard enough. The Board of Curators announced Thursday that it had voted 4-2 to fire Click for her behavior.
Many black activists were sympathetic to the white professor who had tried to shield them from what they saw as over-aggressive reporters. But journalists and many alumni of the university’s journalism program criticized her for what they saw as interference with the reporters’ 1st Amendment rights.
In firing Click, the board deemed her actions “dangerous” and said they had posed “a serious public policy question” as to whether it would allow faculty “to invoke intimidation or violence against a student.”
“The board respects Dr. Click’s right to express her views and does not base this decision on her support for students engaged in protest or their views,” Pam Henrickson, chair of the board, said in a statement Thursday. “However, Dr. Click was not entitled to interfere with the rights of others, to confront members of law enforcement or to encourage potential physical intimidation against a student.”
Through a spokeswoman, Click declined to comment.
For years, black students had complained about racism at the predominantly white Columbia, Mo., campus, saying that they sometimes felt unsafe and that the N-word was often hurled at them. They said the university was unresponsive to their needs.
The activists made the university system president, Tim Wolfe, a prime target.
At a protest during a parade, they stopped Wolfe’s car. Click, who had worked in the communications department since 2003, was with them.
In body-camera images obtained by the Columbia Missourian and made public this month, Click can be seen putting herself between police officers and the protesters.
“Get out of the road or get arrested!” an officer says in the video while putting a hand on Click’s shoulder.
“Get your ... hands off me!” Click says, using an expletive.
In November, a graduate student, Jonathan Butler, went on a hunger strike demanding Wolfe’s removal. The university’s beloved football team, backed by its coach, Gary Pinkel, went on strike to support Butler.
When Wolfe resigned Nov. 9, black students gathered on the quad where they had originally set up a small tent city. They celebrated as national, local and student journalists alike tried to capture the moment.
But the story took an unexpected turn.
In a video that went viral, students and staffers who circled the tent site confront student photographer Tim Tai, who eloquently argued that he had a right to cover a protest in a public place.
Click grabs the camera of another student, Mark Schierbecker, and tells him, “You need to get out,” then shouts to other protesters: “Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here!”
After Schierbecker posted the video online, Click said she started receiving angry calls and emails.
“I hope you’re gang-raped by some of the very animals with whom you’re so enamored,” one person wrote, according to emails obtained through an open-records request and published by the Chronicle of Higher Education.
“You have proven that you do not believe in basic constitutional values, especially the one that is so critical to an amazing network of Mizzou graduates,” wrote an unnamed emailer identified by the Chronicle as a news editor at CNN.
Nearly 120 state Republicans signed a Dec. 18 letter denouncing Click’s “illegal” actions and said she “inflame[d] an already caustic situation that was clearly out of line.”
They also took a crack at her professional work on pop culture, writing: “Our constituents have expressed outrage at the fact she is using taxpayer dollars to conduct research on ’50 Shades of Grey,’ ‘Lady Gaga’ and ‘Twilight.’”
This week, a state Republican lawmaker introduced a budget that would have eliminated Click’s salary.
But student activists have backed Click. “Click is NOT the issue,” the activist group Concerned Student 1950 tweeted.
“While some would judge me by a short portion of videotape, I do not think that this is a fair way to evaluate these events,” Click said in a Feb. 19 letter to the university.
She added: “Those of us present felt that someone needed to help maintain order and keep the students — who had by all accounts just succeeded in their contentious goal of pressuring MU’s president to resign — safe from retaliation.”
Follow @MattDPearce for national news