The unseating of two of the university’s top leaders was a swift victory for student activists, who had been railing against what they see as a divisive racial climate on the midwestern campus. They have accused Missouri’s president, Tim Wolfe, of not addressing racist and bigoted incidents this academic year, including when the undergraduate student body president was called the n-word, when a white student climbed onto a stage and shouted slurs as a black group rehearsed a skit, and more recently when a swastika was drawn on a wall with human feces.
In Columbia — not far from Ferguson, where the police shooting of a black man in 2014 sparked a national debate about race — the community had been increasing its protests of how minorities are treated, but they found Wolfe unresponsive and apparently unaffected. A student’s hunger strike and the football team banding together to threaten to sit out the rest of its games — a potential public relations disaster and financial loss — pushed the issue into the national conversation.
The nation’s college campuses have become an increasingly common venue for that debate. At Yale University, for example, the president told students last week that the university had “failed’ its minorities after students rallied on campus with emotional tales of discrimination and insults; hundreds of students rallied again in New Haven on Monday as students in Missouri celebrated on the Carnahan Quadrangle, where they had been camped in a tent city in protest.
Missouri students played music, danced and shouted chants of victory, a sometimes tense but hopeful atmosphere.
The Missouri Board of Curators sounded a solemn note in vowing changes, including a first-ever “chief diversity, inclusion and equity officer,” a review of policies, additional support for those who have experienced discrimination, and efforts to hire and retain diverse faculty.
“It saddens me that some who have attended our university have ever felt fear, being unwelcome, or have experienced racism,” said Donald Cupps, the board’s chair. “To those who have suffered, I apologize on behalf of the university for being slow to respond to experiences that are unacceptable and offensive in our campus communities and in our society.”
Some saw Wolfe’s and Loftin’s resignations as a sign that even powerful leaders could be toppled if an important issue such as equality were at stake. Others saw it as further proof that political correctness on university campuses has a stranglehold on common sense, making administrators who had recently been praised for their stewardship of a complex institution suddenly vulnerable to student complaints.
Missouri Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder said that racism has no place at a public university, but he also cautioned against allowing “a dissident few to drive the actions that decide the future of our state university.”
“While I respect the right to peaceful protest … I cannot ignore the necessity of law and order at our universities. Student concerns must be listened to and heard out,” Kinder said in a statement. “However, our universities cannot be run by individuals making demands or using extreme actions. The Board of Curators is in place to make informed decisions and govern, and they must be free to do so. Otherwise chaos ensues.”
Protests had begun to paralyze the state flagship university of 35,000 students, with a student hunger-striking, many faculty and students boycotting classes Monday, the student government formally calling for Wolfe’s removal, and the football team jumping into the fray by refusing to play until he was removed — significantly broadening the reach of protesters’ message.
Wolfe announced Monday morning that he would step down immediately.
“My motivation in making this decision comes from love,” Wolfe said at a special meeting called by the Board of Curators, the university system’s governing body. “I love MU, Columbia where I grew up, the state of Missouri.”
But he concluded that resigning “is the right thing to do. … I take full responsibility for this frustration, and I take full responsibility for the inaction that has occurred.”
Wolfe had led a four-campus system with about 6,000 faculty members and 77,000 students. A 1980 graduate of the flagship in Columbia, Wolfe took office as the system’s 23rd president in 2012 after a long career in companies dealing with information technology, infrastructure software and consulting. Wolfe’s contract was renewed last year with praise for his strategic planning.
But many students cheered his decision, a move that Missouri’s governor also applauded.
“Tim Wolfe’s resignation was a necessary step toward healing and reconciliation on the University of Missouri campus, and I appreciate his decision to do so,” Gov. Jay Nixon (D) said.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest also praised the protesters. “A few people standing up and speaking out can have a profound impact on the places where we live and work,” Earnest said. He noted that similar debates are taking place at other campuses, such as at Yale.
The scale and source of the concerns at Yale are different, Earnest said, but both go to the “fundamental issue of ensuring that there is home for everyone” on college campuses.
Tensions were high in Missouri on Monday morning, with many black students camped out in solidarity with Jonathan Butler, the student on a hunger strike, and joined by members of the faculty and some white students.
Faculty members canceled classes, a petition with 7,000 signatures called for Wolfe’s removal, and a there was a boycott of student services. In the morning, the Missouri Students Association, which represents the school’s undergraduates, formally called for Wolfe’s removal. In a letter, it decried the administration’s silence after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, a black man, by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., and charged that Wolfe had “enabled a system of racism” on the Columbia campus and had failed the students.
By midday, Wolfe had resigned, telling students that “the frustration, the anger I see, is clear, it’s real, I don’t doubt it for a second. The faculty and staff have expressed their anger and their frustration. It’s real.”
His supporters might be frustrated as well, he said, and raised the question: How did the campus get to this point?
“It is my belief that we stopped listening to each other,” Wolfe said. “We didn’t respond or react. We got frustrated with each other, and we forced individuals like Jonathan Butler to take immediate action and unusual steps to effect change.”
After Wolfe stepped down, Butler posted: “This is only the first step! More change is to come!”
After making national headlines with its threat to boycott Saturday’s football game against Brigham Young University, the Tigers resumed preparation for the game on Tuesday, according to the athletic department.
The university system announced that administrator Hank Foley, would become interim chancellor, and that an interim system president would be announced as soon as possible.
Garnett S. Stokes, the provost and executive vice chancellor sent a message to deans and faculty: “Cultural change often begins on university campuses, and the process is not always easy.”
Madi Alexander and Chuck Culpepper in Columbia, Mo., Isaac Stanley-Becker in New Haven, Conn., and Nick Anderson, Michelle Boorstein, Greg Jaffe and Wesley Lowery in Washington contributed to this report.