As you’ve no doubt heard, both the president and chancellor at the University of Missouri stepped down from their respective posts this past Monday. Their resignations came in the midst of a student-led outcry over a lack of action taken by the U of M administration in response to several racially-driven incidents on the predominately white campus in recent years.
Leadership at the Columbia, Mo.-based institution—the flagship of the University of Missouri System—had been feeling the heat from all sides. Now-former university president Tim Wolfe, in particular, came under intense scrutiny for what a tweet from Missouri’s Legion of Black Collegians described as his “negligence toward marginalized students’ experience” at the school.
For example, African-American players from the Mizzou football team—with the full support of their white teammates—declared on Nov. 8 that they would neither play nor practice until Wolfe was removed from his position as the university’s president.
Just five days earlier, grad student Jonathan Butler began a hunger strike that he said would last until Wolfe was ousted. On Nov. 9, the Missouri Students Association’s executive cabinet called for Wolfe to resign.
That same day, Wolfe obliged them, with Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin announcing just hours later that he would be leaving his job effective Jan. 1, transitioning to a role coordinating research at the university.
The question of how to eliminate or even curb racism on a college campus or anywhere else is one that’s entirely too large for us to attempt to take on in this space. But we can’t help but ask—from our admittedly very safe and very distant vantage point—could the HR function at the university have done anything to help prevent the tensions simmering on the U of M campus from reaching a boil?
That’s a tough question to answer from an outsider’s perspective, of course. But what’s unfolding at the school illustrates the importance of one of the HR leader’s many roles, says Dave Ulrich, the Rensis Likert Professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.
“Good HR folks have a sense of what’s happening,” says Ulrich. “Sometimes HR analytics look only at spreadsheet, empirical data. [But], there is another field of analytics called anthropology.”
Acting as an anthropologist of sorts, as Ulrich explains, an HR professional should observe, listen and anticipate patterns to get a handle on how people within the organization—students and faculty members, in this case—are feeling, and how they’re relating to each other.
At the University of Missouri, he says, “it should not [have] come as a surprise that racial tension existed and persists. HR should have looked for this [tension] and then created forums for dialogue so that very emotionally charged issues could be discussed.”Twitter It!