Ole Miss needs culture change

Posted on Feb 27 2014 - 8:00am by Adam Blackwell

I’ve thought about this column for over a week now. When I sat at home Monday night, reading the email from the chancellor, I was instantly numb. I wondered if we had re-entered the 1960s or if this really was 2014, at a major state university. Then, only a couple of days later, I was thrown again as I read of the racial attack that occurred at The Retreat.

For some time, I didn’t know how to channel my anger, disgust, frustration, sadness and the many swirling emotions that I’ve experienced over the past week. Frankly, I’m still somewhat in shock, and I think many of us don’t know where we go from here. This wasn’t supposed to happen. And we certainly were supposed to be past such hateful, ignorant actions on our own campus.

Many have said that these heinous acts are not reflective of our current student body, that they are not reflective of “our” Ole Miss. Of course, these acts don’t reflect the views of our entire student body, but I think they point to a need to evaluate our current student culture and what we can do to change that.

Many students have shown apathy and a lack of concern toward the defacement of the James Meredith statue. Our own Associated Student Body, elected student-leaders, didn’t even feel the need to release an immediate official statement; in fact, they hesitated to release an official statement for over a week. However, I commend our Interfraternity Council presidents on their open letter to the campus, and I challenge their organizations to seriously question how they “can open (their) doors, become more inclusive and take immediate actions in becoming part of the solution.”

From here, our university community must decide how we want to move forward. In my opinion, we can’t sweep this one under the rug or act as if this past year’s events have been coincidental. We also can’t quit the open, serious dialogue in a month; it must continue. Surely, we can’t just give up and we can’t become discouraged. If we give up or if we turn to silence, we concede victory to a group of people who most definitely don’t deserve it. We tell the world that closed-minded bigots control this university once again.

Our student culture supports and fosters intolerance — intolerance of all differences. Every act that has occurred on this campus in the last two years — election night 2012, “The Laramie Project” and now the James Meredith vandalism — has been because of intolerance of differences. We must work diligently to create a student environment of acceptance and tolerance — tolerance of different races, genders, political beliefs, sexualities, religions and the like.

Our administration should also reflect the diverse, open environment that I know they wish to foster. Of the 15 academic deans at The University of Mississippi, only three are women, and only two are racial minorities. Eleven of the academic deans are white males. Furthermore, of the nine administrators listed on the school’s website as senior leadership, only two are women, and all are white. How can we expect to change our university’s image and culture if our own university leadership doesn’t reflect the student population or the commitment to diversity that they often proclaim?

The University of Mississippi’s administration, in recent years, has taken appropriate steps to begin an open dialogue and discover how to change this culture of intolerance and to move away from the Ole Miss of the past. While some progress has been made, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking The University of Mississippi has become a beacon of progress, equality or tolerance. Like many other institutions, there is still work to be done on all fronts.

Mississippi has not yet reached the “oasis of freedom and justice” that Martin Luther King Jr. called for. We must continue to press forward; we must continue to ask uncomfortable questions; and most importantly, we must continue to speak up and speak loudly against injustice and intolerance.

When it is obvious that intolerant, disrespectful bigots don’t have a place here, then The University of Mississippi will stand as a flagship institution of freedom and justice.

Adam Blackwell is a senior public policy leadership major from Natchez.

— Adam Blackwell