University of Missouri System president Tim Wolfe stepped down as faculty threatened to walk out and the school’s football team went on strike in a show of support for students who say he’s done too little to combat racism on Mizzou’s campus.
COLUMBIA, Mo. — The University of Missouri system’s president, Tim Wolfe, resigned Monday morning in the face of growing protests by African-American students, the threat of a walkout by faculty and a strike by football players who said he had done too little to combat racism on campus.
Wolfe made the stunning announcement at the start of a special Board of Curators meeting Monday morning that had been scheduled to address the growing crisis at the Show Me state’s flagship university. The board voted in favor of accepting his resignation.
“I am resigning as president of the University Missouri system,” said Wolfe, who choked up as he announced he was stepping down. “My motivation in making this decision comes from a love of Columbia where I grew up and the state of Missouri. I thought and prayed over this decision. It is the right thing to do … The frustration and anger I see is real, and I don’t doubt it for a second.”
The situation had become so emotional on campus, the first land-grant university west of the Mississippi River, that many members of the football team had even announced they would boycott team activities.
After Wolfe’s announcement, the university’s athletic department said in a statement that the football team would return to the practice field Tuesday to prepare for its game on Saturday against BYU. Canceling the game would have cost the university in excess of $1 million.
The situation at Missouri unfolded as other campuses, including Yale University and Ithaca College, have faced protests in recent weeks over racially tinged episodes on those campuses.
At Ithaca, students are circulating a petition asking for a vote of “confidence” or “no confidence” of President Tom Rochon, who critics say has given inadequate response to several allegedly racist incidents at the Upstate New York college. At Yale, protests erupted after the university sent an email to students urging them not to wear racially insensitive Halloween costumes. The email prompted a professor to complain that Yale and other universities were becoming “places of censure and prohibition.”
At Missouri, students pointed to several recent events on campus that underscore a hostile environment for black students.
Student government president Payton Head, who is black, said in September that people in a passing pickup 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. In addition, a swastika drawn in feces was found recently in a dormitory bathroom. Protesters at Missouri galvanized around a group called Concerned Student 1950, which gets its name from the year the university accepted its first black student.
Before Wolfe’s resignation, a faculty group issued a statement announcing plans for a walkout.
“I take full responsibility for what has occurred,” Wolfe said.
Students complaining about a racially fraught campus environment began protests at the university on Sept. 24, but the tense situation on campus had only recently begun to gain national attention.
More than 30 members of Missouri’s football team announced Saturday that they would no longer take part in football-related activities while Wolfe was in power.
The football players joined the protest after graduate student Jonathan Butler began a hunger strike one week ago. Butler said the strike would either end with Wolfe leaving his post or Butler dying.
“The primary concerns of our student-athletes, coaches and staff has been centered on the health of Jonathan Butler and working with student leaders to find a resolution that would save a life,” Missouri football coach Gary Pinkel and athletic director Mack Rhoades said in a statement. “We are hopeful we can begin a process of healing and understanding on our campus.”
After Wolfe’s announcement, Butler took to Twitter to announce that his hunger strike was over.
“This is only the first step! More change is to come!!” Butler posted on his Twitter account.
A series of rapid developments preceded the resignation of University of Missouri System president Tim Wolfe, but critics say it will take much longer to fix racial problems on Mizzou’s campus.
On Monday, before Wolfe announced his resignation, the undergraduate student government called for Wolfe’s ouster.
“As the Executive Cabinet of the undergraduate student government, representing the 27,000 undergraduates at the University of Missouri’s flagship institution, we formally demand the immediate removal of the UM System President Tim Wolfe,” the student association wrote in a letter to the Board of Curators, which oversees the University of Missouri’s four statewide campuses.
Hundreds of protesters gathered on the university’s quad after Wolfe announced his resignation to celebrate. They sang We Shall Overcome, a song that had become an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, and said the episode was just one moment in what will be a larger push for change on campus.
“Our demands must be met in totality to create systems of healing within the UM System,” said Marshall Allen, one of the original members of Concerned Student 1950. “In addition to this, students, staff and faculty of color must be involved in the process of (deciding) who will be our next UM System president.”
Majiyebo Yacim, a junior at the university who watched from the sidelines of the protest, said Wolfe’s resignation was long overdue.
“I feel pretty isolated,” said Yacim, who is black. “It is a predominantly white institution. And as a black student, there are times when i feel out of place. Seeing that minority students on campus can stick together and make things happen has been a really great experience. “
The movement comes more than a year after a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, spurring a national protest. The St. Louis suburb is about 120 miles from the Columbia campus.
In their letter on Monday, student government leaders pointed to the university officials’ “silence” in the aftermath of Ferguson as exacerbating tensions on campus. Butler, the student who went on the hunger strike, echoed the sentiment.
“In a post-Ferguson world, there was so much struggle on campus but administration refused to step in on our behalf and do the things they needed to do to make sure black students, brown students and all marginalized students are feeling safe and included on this campus,” Butler said.
Wolfe, who earned his bachelors degree from the university’s flagship campus and spent most of his childhood in Columbia, said he was crestfallen by what had transpired. He pinned the blame squarely on himself for letting the situation on campus get out of hand, while acknowledging a break-down in communication with students on campus.
“Why did we get to this very difficult situation? ” Wolfe said. “It is my belief we stopped listening to each other.”
Contributing: Tom O’Toole in McLean, Va. and Rose Schmidt in Columbia, Mo.
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