This commentary originally appeared in Real Clear Policy on March 2, 2016.
Over the last 18 months, the University of Missouri has seen the highs and the lows. In July of 2014, the Columbia campus announced record-breaking annual fundraising numbers. Then, in the fall of 2015, student protests rocked the school, forcing the exodus of the UM System president and chancellor. And out of this melee arose what some deem the poster child for the rising tide of intolerance sweeping across some American campuses: communications professor Melissa Click, whose harassment of a student journalist covering the protests became a viral video.
Professor Click was fired by the UM Board of Curators last Thursday. But it wasn't really the board that did her in. It was free markets — prospective students, their parents, donors, and alumni — expressing their displeasure with their checkbooks.
Perhaps none of this could have been anticipated whenUM announced that it had set a fundraising record of $164.5 million in fiscal year 2014. Aglow from its success, UM announced a new fundraising campaign, "Mizzou: Our Time to Lead," last October 8. Its goal would be to raise $1.3 billion by 2020. Kicking off the campaign, the school scheduled a number of events for its homecoming weekend, which began on October 9.
This is also when the trouble began. Homecoming weekend saw the beginning of student demonstrations over perceived racism on campus. Several protesters blocked the homecoming parade route, forcing then-president Tim Wolfe's car to a halt. Next, the UM football players announced that they would demonstrate their support for a graduate student's hunger strike by refusing to play another football game until Wolfe resigned. A number of graduate assistants on campus were protesting the school's ending of their health-insurance coverage, a move that UM argued was forced on it by Obamacare.
The continuing unrest came to a head last November, when both President Wolfe and Chancellor Loftin were forced from office. At the same time, the video of Professor Click hit social media. It showed her attempting to grab a student journalist's camera as he was filming a protest. "Hey, who wants to help me get this reporter out of here?" Click shouted to the protesters. "I need some muscle over here."
This assault on the First Amendment rights of a student journalist — by a professor of communications, no less — was the straw that broke the campus's back. The people of Missouri launched a protest of their own against the school's handling of the protests. In January, it was reported that student applications had dropped 5 percent in the three months following the protests. Compared with last year, the state's flagship university has received 914 fewer applications. Worse, the Columbia campus is suffering a 7.7 percent drop in high-scoring SAT and ACT applicants, and out-of-state applications are down 25 percent from last year.
The loss of out-of-state students hits the school's bottom line especially hard. UM currently charges in-state students an annual tuition of $9,433, while out-of-state students pay more than two and a half times that amount — $24,460.
And then the other shoe dropped: Last week, UM announced that new pledges and donations in December — a key month for university fundraising — fell $6 million, a decrease of roughly 31 percent. Only the Columbia branch, where the protests took place, suffered these losses. No other UM branch experienced declines.
What was the cumulative effect of the financial cuts exercised by prospective students, donors, and alumni? Last Thursday, the UM Board of Curators announced that Professor Click had been fired. Click had been on suspension with pay since January 27. Under the board's ruling, she has the right to appeal her dismissal.
Commenting on the board's decision, UM Interim Chancellor Hank Foley wrote, "I am in complete agreement with the board that the termination of Dr. Click is in the best interest of our university. Her actions in October and November are those that directly violate the core values of our university."
Some MU faculty leaders think otherwise. Law professor Ben Trachtenberg, Faculty Council chair, labeled the board's actions "terrible." Faculty Council member Angela Speck opined that is was "ridiculous that she should be fired without due process."
The nonpartisan Foundation for Individual Rights in Education shares the concerns over due process: "While FIRE has been critical of Click's actions during the Mizzou protests, it in no way lessens the importance of ensuring faculty members are afforded due process … Melissa Click — like everyone else — is entitled to nothing less." The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) also raises the issue, labeling Click's firing "an action fundamentally at odds with basic standards of academic due process as set forth in the joint 1940 tatement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure."
But some education reformers — just when they thought American universities were irretrievably lost to political correctness — hope that the people's rebuke to UM helps usher in a return to American campuses of intellectual tolerance, civility, and respect for the right to disagree. They remind the AAUP that its 1940Statement also includes the following: "Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good," which "depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition" — the very freedoms Click denied to a student journalist. The 1940 Statement also instructs professors that, "as scholars and educational officers, they should … exercise appropriate restraint [and] should show respect for the opinions of others." Calling for "some muscle" to deny a student's First Amendment rights hardly qualifies as either restrained or respectful.
Time will tell whether this saga has any lasting import, but one thing is clear: At UM, the people — prospective students, their parents, donors, and alumni — using the power of the purse, exercised their economic freedom to rebuke and reform the school. Will the power of this popular backlash against Mizzou incentivize alums and prospective students at other schools to do likewise? After all, UM is far from the only public university guilty of intellectual intolerance. Other schools are watching events unfold in Columbia, hoping to learn whether they too might have to face accountability from those who fund them.
Their apprehension is warranted: They could be just one Click away from their own existential crisis.
Thomas K. Lindsay directs the Centers for Tenth Amendment Action and Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and is editor of SeeThruEdu.com. He was deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities under George W. Bush.