The president of the University of Missouri system, Tim Wolfe, resigned Monday amid protests against his handling of racist incidents on campus, among other issues. Later in the day, the university's chancellor, R. Bowen Loftin, announced he would step down from his role at the end of the year and assume a new position at the university.
The announcements follow a series of racial incidents on campus that led to student protests and boycotts. When a significant number of black players on the school’s football team announced this weekend that they were planning to strike, the stakes were raised even more. Had the team forfeited its upcoming game on Saturday against BYU, it would have cost the athletic program $1 million, according to a contract between the schools. Even though that may be a paltry sum for a department which boasted a $83.7 million haul last year, it would have been a significant blow to the school’s prestige and its embattled president, who ironically had been campaigning for a $72 million expansion of the team's stadium.
"The frustration and anger I see is clear, real and I don't doubt it for a second," Wolfe said in a press conference on Monday. He called his decision to step down -- effective immediately -- the "right thing to do," and the result of different factions on campus not "listening to each other."
"We have to respect each other another enough to stop yelling at each other and start listening to each other," he said. "Use my resignation to heal and start talking again." Wolfe also referenced an ongoing hunger strike by a 25-year-old black graduate student at the university, Jonathan Butler, who said he was willing to die if Wolfe wasn't removed from office.
“I already feel like campus is an unlivable space,” Butler recently told The Washington Post. “So it’s worth sacrificing something of this grave amount because I’m already not wanted here. I’m already not treated like I’m a human.”
And yet, the protests on campus have not drawn the level of the attention that the football team’s stand did. Sixty of the team’s 124 players are black and they appeared to have the support of all their teammates, coaches and staff. The team’s coach Gary Pinkel tweeted a photograph of himself this weekend alongside approximately 100 players and staff-members, both black and white, with the caption: "The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players." The team had suspended practices, workouts and all other football related activities in solidarity with Butler.
“They decided to be leaders in this issue to save the life of a fellow student athlete. And not just our black student athletes, but our white and black student athletes made that decision,” Mizzou Director of Athletics Mack Rhoades said during a press conference on Monday evening. “I think it’s important to know, during those discussion,s there was never any talk about people losing their jobs. It was simply about a man losing his life.” He added that this situation was "certainly not ideal" and called it "an extraordinary circumstance."
During the press conference, Pinkel insisted that his involvement was based on supporting the students, who had independently decided as a team to support Butler's cause. He described receiving an emotional call from his student athletes on Saturday night describing Butler's condition. "I got involved because I support my players and they said a young man’s life was on the line," Pinkel said. "My support of the players had nothing to do with anyone losing the job. When it comes to something like this, sports come secondary."
The protests also drew support from the university’s Graduate Professional Council, its history department, and a famous alum, Michael Sam, the first openly gay NFL player. Democratic Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill called for the Board of Curators to get involved to highlight their “unqualified commitment” to fighting racism, and the state’s attorney general has called for the formation of a task force to investigate Concerned Students 1950’s allegations. And on Sunday, Democratic Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon stated that "racism and intolerance have no place at the University of Missouri or anywhere in our state."
Student-athlete strikes are rare and when they do occur they have largely been due to working conditions, not a climate of racial animus. Reports of tension at the school stretch back to September, when the Missouri Students Association president Payton Head alleged that he was repeatedly called a racial slur by passengers in a pick-up truck while he was walking on campus. Head, who is African-American, went public with his frustration with the school’s handling of the incident, later telling The Missiourian: “I’d had experience with racism before, like microaggressions, but that was the first time I’d experienced in-your-face racism.” MSNBC has reached out to Head for comment but has not heard back at this time. On Monday, he tweeted: "NEVER underestimate the power of students. Our voices WILL be heard."
Following further alleged racial slur incidents and the appearance of a swastika drawn in human feces on a campus bathroom wall, students – who claimed that their messages directed at administrators had gone ignored -- took to the streets and protested during the school’s Oct. 10 homecoming parade. When Wolfe was surrounded by protesters in his car at the event he appeared to show no discernible reaction, which only inflamed activists’ fervor.
On Nov. 6, Wolfe was asked to define “systematic oppression” by protesters outside of a fundraising event. Wolfe said in an exchange that was caught on tape: “Systematic oppression is because you don’t believe that you have the equal opportunity for success.” This response triggered more anger among some members of the minority community on campus. "Did you just blame us for systematic oppression, Tim Wolfe? Did you just blame black students?" a female protester can be heard shouting at a departing Wolfe from off-camera.
A student activist organization called Concerned Student 1950 (1950 was the year Mizzou admitted its first black students) had presented Wolfe with a list of demands. The group called for Wolfe to not only issue a handwritten apology to demonstrators but to remove himself from office. They also demanded the creation of a “comprehensive racial awareness and inclusion curriculum,” more funding and resources for social justice programs and a 10% increase in black faculty and staff on campus. Mizzou is a predominately white campus, with roughly 17% of the student body identifying with a minority group, according to the university.
Wolfe refused to meet any of Concerned Student 1950’s demands, but said, “Racism is unacceptable, it’s absolutely unacceptable, and we have to eliminate it,” adding, “My actions will support my words.”
He later said he regretted his reaction to the homecoming protest. "I am sorry, and my apology is long overdue. My behavior seemed like I did not care. That was not my intention. I was caught off guard in that moment,” he said in a Nov. 6 statement.
On Monday, he tried to strike a conciliatory note. In addition to taking "full responsibility" for the frustrations of students and faculty, he implored the school to "focus on changing what we can change today and in the future, not what we can’t change – what happened in the past."
Meanwhile, Concerned Student 1950 cheered Wolfe's resignation on Twitter: "Brothers and Sisters, this is a momentus occassion [sic] but do not be moved! Our Brother can eat, but we are still owed Demands! Stay strong!"