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Here’s how the University of Missouri confrontation got so extreme

- November 13, 2015
Michigan students stand in solidarity Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015, with University of Missouri protesters and students, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (Dominic Valente/The Ann Arbor News via AP)

The confrontation at the University of Missouri didn’t have to turn out this way.

A University of Missouri graduate student, Jonathan Butler, starved himself for a week. The football team went on strike. The university president and a chancellor resigned. The university was nationally embarrassed.

By now, you’ve probably read about what’s been happening at the University of Missouri, which culminated in  the forced resignations of University President Timothy Wolfe and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin. Jonathan Butler—whose week-long hunger strike was the heart of the Mizzou protest movement—declared that these resignations were neither his initial desire nor his ultimate goal:

This isn’t how change should’ve happened. Years ago, when we were trying to have dialog with administration, when we were trying to get things changed for faculty … [we] sent emails, held forums, they weren’t listening to us, they really weren’t listening to us. Those are the times they should’ve been listening.

It shouldn’t have taken me to put my life on the line to get to this place.

So why did things escalate so dramatically? That’s a central question in conflict studies: why do adversaries engage in costly conflicts that hurt all sides, rather than agree to a settlement beforehand that would leave everyone better off?

Among the demands of Concerned Student 1950, the main student group demanding change, were increased numbers of black faculty and “boosting mental health outreach and programming” for students of color. These are comparatively modest requests compared to what ended up happening—and are now highly likely to be instituted.

Why couldn’t they have reached an earlier settlement without the costly fallout?

Scholars have long grappled with this question. Economists ask why labor and management engage in costly strikes and lockouts, instead of reaching an agreement that both would have preferred. Political scientists ask why states fight devastating wars, rather than peacefully settling their differences.

Often, the fundamental problem is that adversaries lack information about each other’s goals, abilities, determination, or willingness to fight.

The theory argues that clear communication across such a large misunderstanding requires sending costly signals, by which opposing sides demonstrate their determination to stand firm by upping the costs of backing down. Doing so simultaneously increases each side’s credibility in standing firm. But it also escalates the conflict and makes the threat of costly fallout much greater. Without costly signaling, opponents cannot make progress toward their goals; with it, big losses get more and more likely.

Events such as the black student body president being called the N-word and someone making a swastika from human feces increased the students’ determination to effect change.  But they struggled with how to signal this. Concerned Student 1950 publicly confronted Wolfe at the Homecoming Day parade to protest the administration’s response. But to many there, these protests were more disruptive than informative, and Wolfe had campus security escort the protesters away.

The university did pledge to require diversity training for students and faculty. But the students saw that as too small compared to their demands for hiring more black faculty and providing greater mental health funding for students of color. Butler complained, “All we get is e-mails and empty promises.” Another student said, “No one’s noticing them. They have to do something to get noticed.”

That’s what Butler did: he announced on Nov. 2 that he was going on a hunger strike until Wolfe resigned or was fired.

This tactic proved much more effective, because it simultaneously imposed costs on Butler and on Wolfe. Butler’s willingness to starve himself signaled his determination to suffer for his cause; each day of starvation increased his credibility. In addition, by publicly announcing the hunger strike—including tweeting his manifesto—Butler generated “audience costs,” which are costs he would suffer from peers or supporters from backing out.

Each day of the hunger strike also imposed greater costs on Wolfe. It put unflattering attention on the university and his own administration. It also drew others–both students and faculty—who joined Butler in protesting.  Furthermore, if Butler did die, Wolfe would possibly be at least partially blamed for Butler’s death, which would likely cause Wolfe great personal, emotional, and professional harm.

Wolfe sought to de-escalate by acknowledging the existence of racism on campus and apologizing for having campus police remove students from a Homecoming parade protest, but by then Butler was publicly committed to his demand for Wolfe’s resignation. Indeed, Wolfe’s concessions may have further encouraged Butler to stand firm.

Butler’s week-long protest ultimately lowered the “revolutionary threshold” of other sympathetic students by both showing that protest could effect change and shaming them for their lack of participation. On Nov. 7, several black football players joined the protests by refusing to play unless Wolfe resigned. The football coach expressed solidarity by tweeting a photo of the entire team with the caption, “We are behind our players.”

With the football boycott, the national media started paying attention. That not only dramatically increased the costs of backing down, but also increased UM’s costs for standing firm. If UM forfeited its upcoming game against Brigham Young University, it would have cost the school $1 million. Two days later, Wolfe resigned.

Both Butler and Wolfe have said they hope to see greater reforms and reconciliation at Mizzou.  It remains to be seen if Concerned Student 1950’s other demands will be met.

But if any such changes happen, it will be due to the students’ costly escalation, which dramatically amplified their voices. What’s more, the Missouri students’ escalation has now put other universities on notice as well, reducing the “information problem” that those campus activists face. With any luck, other campuses experiencing racial tension will be able to negotiate effective responses without suffering the great costs that Mizzou had to endure.

Michael McKoy is an assistant professor at Wheaton College whose research focuses on the international causes and effects of domestic revolutions.

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