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Nov. 11, 2015 — A collective power

Protests on the part of student-athletes at American universities are not new.

Some football teams joined anti-war and civil rights protests in the 1960s, including prominent instances at the University of Wyoming and at San Jose State. Women struggled and argued for equal funding under Title IX, highlighted by a 19-woman protest by the Yale crew team in 1976.

More recently, the Northwestern football team has been aiming to unionize in order to gain better health benefits and living stipends, a movement which saw a positive ruling from the National Labor Relations Board overturned on appeal.

That has all led up to Monday, when two top administrators from the University of Missouri announced that they would be stepping down.

The resignations of university president Tim Wolfe and chancellor R. Bowen Loftin have come after a long series of tensions on campus involving Planned Parenthood, the revocation of health insurance for graduate students, and race relations on campus. But the true anger wasn’t crystallized until more than 30 members of the school’s football team agreed that they would not participate in team activities until the president was removed.

The fact that the football team helped engineer the removal of Tim Wolfe is going to lead to many stories about the clout that it has over the university. In truth, the football team isn’t very good; it has four wins on the season and has not had an undefeated season since 1960.

But what the football team may have lacked in skills off the field, it had something else: economic clout that was, unwittingly, granted by Wolfe. The economic clout that the football team was given was the fact that Wolfe pushed the university to fund a $72 million expansion of the school’s football stadium.

Meanwhile, Wolfe, who came into the job from the business world, tried to cut expenses like health insurance and the closure of the publishing house that bears the university’s name. Because he did not come into the job from worlds of academia or fundraising, Wolfe was, frankly, in over his head when racial tensions started boiling over on campus in the past month. He showed little in the way of consensus-building skills and interpersonal communications skills with the very students he was supposed to lead.

A dance friend of mine is studying for an advanced degree over at Missouri, and she wrote me when the graduate health insurance kerfuffle began:

Words like ‘strike,’ ‘union,’ and ‘walkout’ are being tossed around. It’s also probably not good publicity when a large proportion of your student employees don’t even make enough money to get an Affordable Care Act plan and have to scramble to apply for Medicaid — and then realize that Missouri didn’t expand Medicaid, so now some students are stuck in that gap, unable to get insurance at all.

This whole episode is not over; far from it. You have a college campus that is, frankly, less diverse than Ivy League schools, and there are going to be a lot of epiphanies on the part of a lot of people when it comes to how political and social power is used, misused, and ultimately, spent.

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1 Comment»

  Adam wrote @

It should be noted that the university cut health insurance because it had to comply with the Affordable Care Act. According to the Columbia Daily Tribune from an August 15th article.

“MU Associate Vice Chancellor for Graduate Studies Leona Rubin said the change is the result of a recent IRS interpretation of a section of the Affordable Care Act. The law, which requires adults to have health insurance or face tax penalties, “prohibits businesses from providing employees subsidies specifically for the purpose of purchasing health insurance from individual market plans,” the university said in a letter sent to students Friday.

The IRS, Rubin said, considers the university’s student health insurance plan from Aetna an “individual market plan.” Because of the IRS classification, the university cannot give graduate students with assistantships a subsidy to help with health insurance costs, Rubin said.

If the university continued to do so, Rubin said it could be fined $36,500 per student per year.”

The grad students can’t blame the university for having to comply with Obamacare.


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