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Why Tim Wolfe’s Resignation from the University of Missouri is a Warning for all Universities By Chris Parr Guest Columnist London, United Kingdom The University of Missouri protesters have won. They’ve got their man (well, “men”, to be more accurate). Yesterday, amid a wave of student campaigns against what protesters saw as a culture of racism at the institution, two of the Missouri system’s big wigs stepped down. President of the Missouri system, Tim Wolfe, has gone. So too has R. Bowen Loftin, chancellor of its flagship institution at Columbia. The protests were rooted in a series of alleged racial incidents on campus, set against the backdrop of the 2014 shooting of unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, by police in Ferguson. Black students reported multiple racial slurs. They alleged that the university was not doing enough to recruit and retain black students, and its football players said they would boycott games until Wolfe was gone. A hunger striker promised to continue fasting until the change was made. It is a sorry story, and one that brings home the importance of listening to your customers. Students are a university’s clients - its life blood. Without them, there is no university community; no buzz of scholarly activity; and - yes - no tuition fees. For me, the key phrase came in Wolfe’s resignation speech. “We stopped listening to each other, we didn’t respond and react, we got frustrated with each other,” he said. When a university (like any organisation) stops listening, it is playing a risky game. In one incident at Missouri, members of an organisation called Concerned Student 1950 confronted Wolfe while he sat in a convertible during the homecoming parade. The president did not get out of the car and speak with them. Had he done so, then perhaps this story might have ended very differently. The thing is, there will always be controversies on university campuses. And so there should be. When students encounter persecution, marginalisation or discrimination, they should speak out about it. When they see racism, or sexism, or homophobia they should fight it head on. If our brightest and best young scholars feel they cannot protest, cannot speak out, cannot confront these issues and be listened to, then what hope is there in other sectors of society? Students have a fine tradition of protest, and long may today’s cohort honour it. But universities and their leaders have a part to play too - and it’s a big one. Fail to listen and react to these concerns (as appears to have happened in the Missouri case) and you will alienate your most valuable asset. You cannot deny your students their voice. As state investment in universities falls (as it has in the US), and more university funding comes from student fees (as in the UK), the student voice will become more and more powerful. But this is not simply a financial issue. Had Missouri reacted more swiftly to the concerns when they were originally raised; had it been quicker to implement change; had it engaged with students on their terms in a timely manner; then it might not have found itself in such a helpless situation. The message is clear. Listen to your customers. React to what they have to say. And never stop listening to your students - they know more about life on your campus than anyone else. Chris Parr