University of Missouri president steps down amid race row

Posted at 7:20 AM, Nov 09, 2015
and last updated 2015-11-09 13:52:09-05

Several University of Missouri organizations, including the football team and the student association, saw their demands met Monday when university system President Tim Wolfe announced he was stepping down amid a controversy over race relations at the school’s main campus.

Saying he takes “full responsibility for the inaction that has occurred,” he asked that the university community listen to each other’s problems and “stop intimidating each other.”

“This is not — I repeat, not — the way change should come about. Change comes from listening, learning, caring and conversation,” he said. “Use my resignation to heal and start talking again.”

His decision, he said, “came out of love, not hate,” and he urged the university to “focus on what we can change” in the future, not what’s happened in the past.

His decision came after black football players at the University of Missouri — with their coach’s support — threatened not to practice or play again until graduate student Jonathan Butler ended his hunger strike. Butler, who was protesting the state of race relations on the main campus and had demanded Wolfe’s removal, tweeted Monday morning, “My body is tired but my heart is strong. This fight for justice is necessary.”

He tweeted after Wolfe’s news conference that he had ended his hunger strike and said, “More change is to come!! #TheStruggleContinues.”

There was no immediate word on whether the black players had rescinded their threat not to play, but if the Tigers fail to take the field against the Brigham Young University Cougars at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium on Saturday, the team will be forced to pay a cancellation fee of $1 million, according to a copy of the contract published in The Kansas City Star earlier this year.

About 30 players made their thoughts known Saturday night in a tweet posted by Missouri’s Legion of Black Collegians.

“The athletes of color on the University of Missouri football team truly believe ‘Injustice Anywhere is a threat to Justice Everywhere,’ ” read the tweet. “We will no longer participate in any football related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed due to his negligence toward marginalized students’ experience.”

A group of concerned faculty also offered its support, saying it would stand in solitary with graduate students who intended to walk out of classes Monday.

“Faculty will meet at the Carnahan Quadrangle starting at 10am and will be present throughout the day to respond to student questions in the form of a teach in. Students are encouraged to check email for information from their professors,” said a statement distributed via social media.

Complaints and concerns

Last week, the University of Missouri Faculty Council on University Policy issued a statement expressing “deep concern with regard to the lack of communication and the growing uncertainty about the leadership of the University of Missouri system and MU campus. This unresolved situation erodes our ability to perform faculty duties of teaching, research, and outreach.”

The move by the football players was the latest salvo in a spiraling debate over the experiences of African-American students at Missouri, who have complained of inaction on the part of school leaders in dealing with racism on the overwhelmingly white Columbia campus.

Black student leaders have complained of students openly using racial slurs and other incidents. In August, someone used feces to draw a swastika, prompting condemnation from black and Jewish student organizations.

Payton Head, president of the Missouri Students Association, wrote an NSFW Facebook post describing his own experiences on campus. White men in a passing pickup truck had hurled a racial epithet at him as he walked across campus.

“I really just want to know why my simple existence is such a threat to society. For those of you who wonder why I’m always talking about the importance of inclusion and respect, it’s because I’ve experienced moments like this multiple times at THIS university, making me not feel included here,” he wrote.

He also relayed stories from friends, including a Muslim woman who had been called a terrorist and women who had been harassed on campus because their outfits were “asking for it.”

“And if this post made you feel uncomfortable, GOOD! That means I’m doing my job. It’s time to wake up Mizzou,” he wrote, signing it, “Your Ni****/Fa**** Missouri Students Association President, Payton Head.”

Several students confronted Wolfe on Friday, asking him if he could define systemic oppression. One person off camera mocked Wolfe, asking if he needed to Google it.

“I will give you an answer and I’m sure it will be a wrong answer,” Wolfe replied before defining it as: “You don’t believe you have equal opportunity for success — ”

The answer drew howls of condemnation from the students, who seized on his use of “believe.”

“Did you just blame us?” a woman asks him. “Did you just blame black students?”

Butler started his hunger strike last week, demanding the removal of Wolfe, who until Monday presided over the university system, which includes the main University of Missouri campus, along with the University of Missouri-St. Louis, University of Missouri and Missouri University of Science and Technology.

Butler wrote, “Students are not able to achieve their full academic potential because of the inequalities and obstacles they face. … In each of these scenarios, Mr. Wolfe had ample opportunity to create policies and reform that could shift the culture of Mizzou in a positive direction, but in each scenario, he failed to do so,” according to the Missourian newspaper in Columbia.