COLUMBIA, Mo. — The president of the University of Missouri system resigned Monday with the football team and others on campus in open revolt over what they saw as his indifference to racial tensions at the school.
President Tim Wolfe, a former business executive with no previous experience in academic leadership, took “full responsibility for the frustration” students expressed and said their complaints were “clear” and “real.”
For months, black student groups had complained that Wolfe was unresponsive to racial slurs and other slights on the overwhelmingly white flagship campus of the state’s four-college system. The complaints came to a head two days ago, when at least 30 black football players announced that they would not play until the president was gone. One student went on a weeklong hunger strike.
Wolfe’s announcement came at the start of what had been expected to be a lengthy closed-door meeting of the school’s governing board.
“This is not the way change comes about,” he said, alluding to recent protests, in a halting statement that was simultaneously apologetic, clumsy and defiant. “We stopped listening to each other.”
He urged students, faculty and staff to use the resignation “to heal and start talking again to make the changes necessary.”
A poor audio feed for the one board member who was attending the meeting via conference call left Wolfe standing awkwardly at the podium for nearly three minutes after reading only one sentence.
In response to the race complaints, Wolfe had taken little action and made few public statements. As students levelled more grievances this fall, he was increasingly seen as aloof, out of touch and insensitive to their concerns. He soon became the protesters’ main target.
In a statement issued Sunday, Wolfe acknowledged that “change is needed” and said the university was working to draw up a plan by April to promote diversity and tolerance. But by the end of that day, a campus sit-in had grown in size, graduate student groups planned walkouts and politicians began to weigh in.
After the resignation announcement, students and teachers in Columbia hugged and chanted.
Sophomore Katelyn Brown said she wasn’t necessarily aware of chronic racism at the school, but she applauded the efforts of black students groups.
“I personally don’t see it a lot, but I’m a middle-class white girl,” she said. “I stand with the people experiencing this.” She credited social media with propelling the protests, saying it “gives people a platform to unite.”
Head football coach Gary Pinkel expressed solidarity with players on Twitter, posting a picture of the team and coaches locking arms. The tweet said: “The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players.”
Pinkel and athletic director Mack Rhoades linked the return of the football players to the end of a hunger strike by a black graduate student named Jonathan Butler, who stopped eating Nov. 2 and vowed not to eat until Wolfe was gone.
After Wolfe’s announcement, Butler said in a tweet that his strike was over. He appeared weak and unsteady as two people helped him into a sea of celebrants on campus. Many broke into dance at seeing him.
Football practice was to resume Tuesday ahead of Saturday’s game against Brigham Young University at Arrowhead Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs.
The protests began after the student government president, who is black, said in September that people in a passing pickup truck shouted racial slurs at him. In early October, members of a black student organization said slurs were hurled at them by an apparently drunken white student.
Frustrations flared again during a homecoming parade, when black protesters blocked Wolfe’s car, and he did not get out and talk to them. They were removed by police.
Also, a swastika drawn in feces was found recently in a dormitory bathroom.
The university did take some steps to ease tensions. At the request of Columbia campus Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin, the university announced plans to offer diversity training to all new students, faculty and staff starting in January. On Friday, the chancellor issued an open letter decrying racism after the swastika was found.
Many of the protests have been led by an organization called Concerned Student 1950, which gets its name from the year the university accepted its first black student. Group members besieged Wolfe’s car at the parade, and they have been conducting a sit-in on a campus plaza since last Monday.
Also joining in the protest effort were two graduate student groups that called for walkouts Monday and Tuesday and the student government at the Columbia campus, the Missouri Students Association.
On Sunday, the association said in a letter to the system’s governing body that there had been “an increase in tension and inequality with no systemic support” since last year’s fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, which is about 120 miles east of Columbia.
Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, was shot and killed by a white police officer during a struggle, and his death helped spawn the “Black Lives Matter” movement rebuking police treatment of minorities.
The association said Wolfe headed a university leadership that “undeniably failed us and the students that we represent.”
“He has not only enabled a culture of racism since the start of his tenure in 2012, but blatantly ignored and disrespected the concerns of students,” the group wrote.
The Concerned Student group demanded, among other things, that Wolfe “acknowledge his white male privilege” and that the school adopt a mandatory racial-awareness program and hire more black faculty and staff.
The school’s undergraduate population is 79 per cent white and 8 per cent black. The state is about 83 per cent white and nearly 12 per cent black.
Wolfe, 57, is a former software executive and Missouri business school graduate whose father taught at the university. He was hired as president in 2011, succeeding another former executive with no experience in academia.