photo by Mark Schierbecker
The remarkable thing about the Melissa Click saga is not that the University of Missouri fired her after a video of her effort to eject a student journalist from a protest last fall went viral.
The remarkable thing is that there was significant support for retaining her among the university’s tenured faculty, a group of which Click was not even a member.
Click gained national attention last November when the video at issue began to circulate online. Mark Schierbecker, a student who was working along with fellow student and photographer Tim Tai, was attempting to cover student protests on a campus quad. Both students received pushback from participants, but Click – an assistant professor of mass media – not only refused to speak with Schierbecker, but stridently demanded his removal, shouting “I need some muscle over here.”
Click issued a formal apology shortly after the incident came to light, but she was suspended with pay in January. Last week, the university’s board of curators voted 4-2 to terminate her employment, despite the group of professors who stepped forward to defend her.
Since tenure requirements were not at issue, the defense focused on academic freedom. In a letter submitted to administrators in December by a large group of faculty, Click’s actions were described as “at most a regrettable mistake.” Their defense also cited her First Amendment rights – as though there is First Amendment protection for calling in “muscle” to remove a student journalist from a public area of campus where he was attempting to cover the occupation of that space by students, and undoubtedly some nonstudents. Click’s support may have been sincere, but her actions suggest the emotion-clouded judgment that more typically characterizes 18-year-old freshmen than 45-year-old tenure-track academics. (Or maybe my view is just old-fashioned, and there really is not much of a difference anymore.)
Nor was it only University of Missouri faculty who made such claims. The American Association of University Professors also issued a letter on Click’s behalf after Click sought the organization’s help, citing the association’s “longstanding commitment to academic freedom, tenure, and due process,” in questioning Click’s suspension. Andrew Hoberek, an English professor at the university, told The Washington Post that Click’s firing “was an egregious violation of due process, clearly taken under political pressure.”
I have a daughter who was a student journalist at a different university not many years ago. If a professor had done to her what Click did to Schierbecker, I would have encouraged my daughter to file a civil action against the faculty member, as well as the university itself. In fact, I suspect it is exactly this possibility that actually provided the backbone for the cowed administration at Mizzou to dispose of Click. The school has also faced potentially severe budget cuts from state lawmakers, many of whom have been vocally critical of Click’s actions.
Let’s not lose sight of the irony that a communications professor worked with an image-making “reputation management” firm to try to rehabilitate herself in the public eye and to save her career during her suspension. But no spin is going to overcome the fact that this teacher demonstrated far less maturity than the student journalist she tried to intimidate.
The event was not a momentary lapse of judgment, as she claimed in her statement, but a personality trait on display. That same lack of maturity arose a month earlier, when a police officer’s lapel camera captured Click shouting obscenities and resisting the police’s attempts to move her to the curb during a student demonstration aimed at blocking the school’s homecoming parade. That incident, which occurred last October, reportedly also contributed to the board of curators’ decision to terminate Click.
That there was any support at all among the Missouri faculty for keeping Click on staff shows how far American academia has devolved in its understanding of and respect for citizens’ rights. A student’s right to stand and record what is happening in a public space on his own campus is evidently seen by some as subordinate to a teacher’s right to push him around, as long as her actions are motivated by the correct political agenda.
For this sort of intellectual training and rigor, American students are taking on decades’ worth of debt.
Click’s firing is a necessary piece of housekeeping at the University of Missouri. But it will take a lot more to scrub off the mental mildew that is staining many of our ivory towers.