Merchant makes all the right moves in first test of leadership

BVU president aims to engage campus, town in conversation about change

He turns lemons into lemonade, if we let him

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

President Josh Merchant was just settling into his first fall semester and football season at Buena Vista University when his first real test of leadership was thrown at him: football players and cheerleaders kneeling during the National Anthem for a home game a week ago.

Donors called to tell the university that their checking accounts suddenly went dry. I know one of them.

Many people were outraged that Beavers would follow NFL players Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid — and then darn near the whole league, including Cowboys owner Jerry Jones — to a knee to protest the treatment of blacks by police.

Reid said they took a knee instead of a seat on the bench during the Star Spangled Banner because they did not want to disrespect the flag. But people thought it was disrespectful nonetheless, and they thought it especially so at Buena Vista.

So it blew up.

Merchant took to Facebook just after 5 p.m. Friday to apologize and to report that players and cheerleaders are expected to stand during the anthem. They may kneel ahead of time. Merchant said he will stand with them. His statement suggests that the protesting students agree with him. I guess it goes under the general rule that when you put on the Blue and Maize you play by its rules. This is no violation of free speech. The government is not telling the students to pipe down. The university asks that students uphold the rules of decorum that it sets for its events. That’s America.

“The very nature of a protest is to cause disruption, yet it is the choices that are made after that disruption that are of significant importance and have the potential to shape the future in positive ways,” Merchant wrote. “To our students who protested, you were not only noticed, but you were heard.”

Their point has been made.

But what point was it to a person sitting in the stands?

Colin Kaepernick has his own reality. Eric Reid has his. And Chris Cole has his.

Cole is Storm Lake’s assistant police chief. He works with minority students — read that young black men — trying to get them into college as they prepare to graduate from Storm Lake High School. His wife, Stacey, has personally outfitted poor Latino students with winter clothes by digging into her own purse. Few people know about it, and I am a little bit sorry to blow their cover.

Or his boss, Police Chief Mark Prosser, who testifies in public about how his own racism was shaped while growing up around East St. Louis and how he combats his own demons here in Storm Lake. He knows Ferguson, and this is not Ferguson. Or Baltimore. Or Chicago.

And, it is not all black-and-white what happened in any of those three places. Or that suburb in St. Paul where the man was shot to death by an officer.

Some officers are racist. Some reporters are. Some football coaches are. Not Buena Vista’s, for certain. Coach Grant Mollring was trying to help his players learn, and no doubt they now have a lesson for life.

The black police chief in Dallas is nothing like the former black sheriff in Milwaukee or the former sheriff in Phoenix.

There is no thornier topic except for abortion.

Suffice to say that those players might have been thinking about the black man selling cigarettes illegally in New York who was killed, proximately, by an officer who put him in a choke hold. They could not have intended to insult all police officers, even if officers here did take it that way. And some did.

So it’s been a learning experience for everyone.

White people who don’t know any black people are alerted to their concerns right in our own front yard. Police can learn about the sensitivities of minority populations, which they always are. We all can learn that police are sent out to do the dirty work for the city council so we can stay home and watch it all on TV. Black folk can learn that not all white folk are oppressors but are sympathetic to their condition.

For the players, they learned about how to use the First Amendment appropriately. Kneeling during a song that few can sing well causes many people to dig in their heels the opposite way. Maybe a prayer service or an oratory in front of Schaller Memorial Chapel would have been more effective. For people old enough to remember the flag raising at Iwo Jima (those people old enough to have sizable fortunes to donate for the students of Buena Vista) it remains the most powerful symbol to almost all Americans for whatever values they read into it.

Nobody was burning a flag or a draft card, which have been done on Buena Vista’s campus during days far more divisive than this.

They were kneeling. So let’s keep this all in perspective.

Vietnam vet Ken Schweller, one of the most distinguished faculty members in the history of Buena Vista, says he is proud of the students. Other people reacting to Merchant’s post referred to him basically as a coward or someone who is just taking care of donors. He is getting it coming and going.

Josh Merchant is doing precisely was the president should do. He is speaking to coaches, players and fans. He is assuring donors and listening to faculty and staff. He is showing patience.

Merchant is organizing a series of campus conversations — dates, times and places yet to come — to help answer the protestors and those who objected to them. “Over the next several weeks we will be working directly with students, faculty and staff to plan several campus gatherings that will create an open discourse that is meaningful and purposeful. Our events will be mediated so all voices can be heard and the environment is one in which it is comfortable to share perspectives. …

“As an institution of higher learning, BVU believes in open discourse. … I simply ask that our community members respect one another through language and action.”

Merchant tells me that he would love for everyone in Storm Lake to participate in the discussions. This is a huge step in bringing town and gown closer together. Students could learn about why local people were so offended. Police officers could share their perspectives on working in a small rural city that is exponentially more diverse than the campus community. White faculty members can learn what it is like to be brown and in Storm Lake, and what prevents them from an education. This is a conversation that has been waiting to happen for 20 years.

Buena Vista and Storm Lake will come out better on the other side.

Merchant is making all the right moves to strengthening Buena Vista through open and appropriate communication. He deserves our support as he proves that he is the leader the Beavers need right now. He deserves the opportunity to reaffirm why donors, Beavers and Storm Lake believe in Education for Service.