Q&A with Paino: Where is Truman after protests at MU?

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]After President Troy Paino sent a University wide e-mail in light of recent events at the University of Missouri, the Truman Media Network interviewed Paino to understand his current thoughts, intentions and future plans for the University.

Editor’s Note: Parts of the questions and President Paino’s answers are paraphrased for the sake of length, style and clarity.

LAY: When you were a college student, what was the environment around racial discrimination like?

PAINO: I went to college around the early 1980’s, and I went to a pretty homogenous, small liberal arts school. There was some diversity, but not as much as I would’ve liked. In retrospect, I think for my own learning environment it would have been much richer if I’d have had a more diverse experience.

I think, looking back, I looked for my diversity elsewhere besides on a campus. I was involved in those larger universities, exposed myself to different cultures, and reached out to those with different backgrounds and perspectives from my own. Even more so, in graduate and law school, I was really exposed to a diversity of backgrounds and cultures. It broadened by own perspectives and the importance of diversity.

LAY: What direct benefits did you obtain as a young adult exposed to such a range of diversity? Relating that back, why is it so important to have diversity on a university campus?

PAINO: I think to answer that I want to go back to the family I was raised in. I had great parents, my father was a minister, so I grew up in sort of a bubble. I found being exposed to more diversity opened up and broadened my own perspectives on issues, along with my worldview. That there was a lot of complexity in the world. It allowed me to see issues differently and I noticed there was a lot of complexity. I learned to appreciate difference and value it, not judge it.

When I got to know people who were different from me, it taught me how to value people and in return they enriched my own experience on this planet.

LAY: Were you personally involved in any social justice or equality movements in your undergraduate, graduate or early career?

PAINO: I wasn’t directly involved in organizations like that, but the 1960’s interested me – I wrote a book on the social movements of the 1960’s. I really became more involved with trying to promote social justice when I became a university faculty member in Minnesota. I worked closely with students, student organizations and faculty focusing on promoting a respect of diversity and the idea of inclusion of excellence. I started feeling it was an important part of who I was.

LAY: Have you seen any progression over time on a university level to close the gap between races?

PAINO: Over my lifetime, I have seen more diversity on college campuses. It’s something institutions promote and value today much more so than they once did. I think that one of the things that happened back in the 1970’s and 1980’s were some policies were put in place that actually prevented access to higher education for different groups, different backgrounds. Whereas, instead it really kind of privileged people who came from upper middle class, upper class types of backgrounds. I think as we’ve gotten into the 90’s and into the 2000’s, we have become much more sensitive to how these policies affect access to higher education.

In addition, the whole concept of inclusive excellence has really emerged in the 21st century. As we’ve recognized our society becoming more and more diverse, I think higher education leaders are recognizing that a part of our mission is to prepare the next generation to be able to preserve our democracy and lead our democracy.

Right now, we see our graduates going into a much more diverse society than I grew up in 50 years ago. Diversity is only going to increase, and for us to live our mission as a public university it is important to represent that diversity. For the first time, the white population is a minority population in the United States, and diversity is only going to increase. And so for us to live our mission as a public university, it’s critically important that we present that diversity. I like to personally think of Truman State as a laboratory of our democracy but if we are going to be that laboratory we have to reflect the diversity that we’re seeing in our society today.

LAY: Speaking of the importance of representing diversity in a higher education institution, the University of Missouri has struggled with this very concept. While the circumstances of Mizzou are unfortunate, Truman can certainly learn from this.

What did you think were some of the main things Wolfe didn’t do right as a president?

PAINO: I personally know Tim Wolfe and we’ve worked on a lot of issues together. Tim Wolfe is a good man. Whether he made mistakes or missteps, sins of omission I would say, I’m sure he wished he had done some things differently. He could have engaged with the students much earlier in the process.

From my perspective, students felt he was detached or aloof from the issue. I don’t think that was his intent, he probably felt very engaged, but it wasn’t communicated to the students. He probably could have engaged much sooner, interacted, and listened to students when they initially brought the grievances forward. Maybe the delay that occurred there allowed an opportunity for some resentment to build up, among the students.

LAY: Is there anything else besides communicating more effectively that he could have done better?

PAINO: Well, I hate to be critical, it’s a very difficult situation, it’s a complex issue. I think there are broader underlying issues at play too. The consciousness that was raised due to the events of Ferguson enabled this sense of agency and activism, especially among African-American students. Individuals feel they need to make a difference in their lives, not just at the University of Missouri but the rest of the state of Missouri. Perhaps all of us, particularly leaders, had not been responsive enough after Ferguson to make a statement and a difference on campuses.

I think one of the things that I’ve heard students express down at the University of Missouri, and one of the things that I’m concerned about here at Truman, is that we [don’t] reflect diversity in leadership and in our faculty and in our staff. I think there’s been some expressions down there that University of Missouri hadn’t been proactive enough in promoting that type of diversity, not only in the student body, but also those who work at the institution.

Some of these issues are deeply ingrained, stemming from outside of the University. I think in some ways, Wolfe became a symbol for the frustration of the students, whether rightly or wrongly. When you become a symbol, it’s kind of hard to change that narrative. I really sense that for President Wolfe in some respects, the events kind of overwhelmed him and this kind of took on a life of it’s own. And he had a hard time getting control of that narrative.

LAY: I wanted to bring in this quote from a journalist the New York Times. Many criticized his leadership style as: “a command-and-control style that didn’t jive well with campus life. And he clearly didn’t know how to respond to the protests.”

How should a president respond to these protests and how would you respond to these protests?

PAINO: All I can speak to is my style of leadership. One of the differences is, I have been on college campuses for a long time, I’ve worked, taught, led as an administrator. I’m right now faculty advisor of 3 student groups, and I’m teaching a class. So I interact with students on a daily basis. I listen to students. So that’s an advantage that I think I have. And so, my style would be to engage. Whenever students want to express their views, I think the important thing is to make sure they have a voice and that they are being listened to.

My experience with students is that if you show them enough respect to listen to them and give them a seat the table, they usually reciprocate in some profound way and show you that respect in working together towards a solution. So I think personally, to answer the last part of the question, my own style would have been try and engage those students and listen to those students.

I can’t speak to the list of grievances that they had, and what they wanted President Wolfe and the administration to do. But what I know I could have done is to take them seriously, and listen to them and listen to their experiences, to have that conversation. And to try and find the middle ground and what can be done and how can we work together.

I know that there was a lot of emotion involved there. When you have people who have felt that they have been victims of discrimination  and I have no doubt that they were victims of discrimination  this is a very emotional issue.

We live in a country that has never solved this problem of race. Even after the civil rights movement and with an African-American president, we still struggle with issues of race and how to talk about it, and how to understand the experiences of someone who has a different skin color than us. They’re incredibly difficult conversations for us. I would like to think opening lines of communication early, engaging with students, giving them a voice, giving them a forum to speak out, and then turning around and acting upon it. Showing the institution is listening and is proactive in addressing the concerns.

LAY: Conversations about race can be very difficult. The University of Missouri is a demonstration of how difficult racial discrimination can be for students and for the foundation of an institution. Let’s discuss diversity and representativeness at Truman State University.

As president, has your experience in academia prepared you? Wolfe was hired to be Mizzou’s president straight from the corporate world, a different background for someone who is expected to lead an institution of higher education. Does your background in academia benefit you in your role?

PAINO: I think so. And again, not to be critical of President Wolfe, but it is different. Running a corporation is very different that running a university. I worry that higher education thinks those who come out of the business world has the answers how to run an organizations. But we’re still educational institutions. Our mission is about educating. If that’s not where you come from, or if you don’t have a deep abiding love and appreciation for that educational mission, it’s hard for anyone to come into lead an institution.

Sometimes I chuckle when I hear, ‘oh, we need CEO “X” to come in and straighten things out in higher education.’ Higher education is not a Fortune 500 company. In some ways it’s more complex, you have many constituency groups – faculty, staff, students, alumni, and parents. It’s not about hard skills but it’s about the soft skills – not just the IQ but EQ, the emotional intelligence. There’s a concept of shared governance, I share my responsibility with everyone on campus.

And first, and foremost, I am an educator. So I care deeply about the mission of educating students. I’m not saying President Wolfe didn’t have that same commitment. But I committed my life to this. I could have done other things, but this is what I am deeply passionate about. I think when you come from that perspective, that when you develop an educational philosophy that guides your life and your profession, I think does alter the way you would run an organization like a university.

LAY: Have you dealt with incidences of racial protests on Truman’s campus?

PAINO: Sure, in the wake of Ferguson, there have been Black Lives Matter, Students for a Democratic Society protests. We try to be a place where we promote free speech as much as possible in the public sphere here, so have certainly been those opportunities for students to have those kinds of protests. I think all of the protests have been peaceful, nothing to the extent of MU.

LAY: What kind of policies, procedures or conversations on campus to ensure Truman has a welcoming environment? Was your e-mail a part of this effort?

PAINO: My e-mail I sent out was an invitation. As committed I am to diversity and inclusion, sometimes you can forget about doing the hard work to ensure we are working together, and that everyone feels respected and people are not suffering any forms of discrimination. It’s easy for me to sit back on the sidelines and say, ‘oh, poor University of Missouri, they should have been doing this, they should have been doing that.’ But I think the more important response is for us to look in the mirror and ask ourselves, ‘well, are we as good at this as we think we are?’

And I suggest there are problems out there on campus that I’m not aware of. so this was really an invitation to students, faculty and staff to talk with me. Make me aware of their experiences at Truman, both the good and the bad. And how we can work together.

It was an invitation for staff, faculty and students to talk to me. I’ve already planned to form a group to develop a strategic plan around diversity on campus. I want to identify the things we need to focus on to create a more inclusive campus. So that’s what the email was about, an invitation to begin that conversation, but not just to talk for talk’s sake but to actually turn it in to action where we understand, these are the things that Truman has to do to be more welcoming and supportive environment.

LAY: Have you received a lot of feedback from students after you sent the e-mail?

PAINO: Yes, I have. I’ve received a lot of e-mails, postings on Facebook and interactions on Twitter. I’ve also personally reached out to groups to make sure that I talk to them about their experiences. I actually have a meeting, that was already set on my calendar, quite honestly, with the Multicultural Affairs Center this coming Thursday and now, in light of what happened at the University of Missouri, I really want to be there to listen to their experiences.

I’ve reached out to the advisor of PRISM to hear the experiences of LGBTQ students, I’m reaching out to the diversity committee from Student Senate to talk to them about how they might be involved with this. There are some individual students, a lot of students who’ve expressed concerns about the support of those with mental health problems on campus. So I’m hearing from a wide variety of students. And I hope over the coming days and weeks to have conversations with a lot of these groups.

But the invitation is really open to everyone. I just listed a few, but there might be others that I certainly haven’t mentioned who are feeling the same way, whether they’re international students or some other students who have experienced something that they want me to know about and that we can do something about.

I’m proud of this University, I do feel that this is a place where students feel they have a voice. That they have access to me and to everyone – faculty and administration, to express their concerns. I think as long as we have that feeling on campus, whatever problems or differences we may have, we can work together on this. I’m very proud to be a part of the Truman community.[/vc_column_text][vc_video link=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Du5SsQt5mf0″][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Editor’s Note: As of Nov. 19, some of the paraphrasing throughout the article was changed to better reflect President Paino’s thoughts and opinions regarding the subject matter. We apologize for any confusion regarding the changes made. If you have questions about this article, please email tmn.truman.edu.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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