A onetime civil rights lawyer and longtime administrator at the University of Missouri’s flagship campus will take over the helm of the university system, replacing a president who was forced out amid heated protests over racism and bigotry there.
Michael Middleton, a lawyer and who served as deputy chancellor of the University of Missouri at Columbia before retiring this summer, will come back to serve as interim president, the Board of Curators announced Thursday afternoon.
He replaces Tim Wolfe, who resigned Monday in the midst of escalating protests over his leadership and what some students have called a hostile campus climate. A graduate student went on a hunger strike, and the football team refused to play until he was gone. Within hours, the board announced that the university’s chancellor would be stepping down, and it announced a series of changes intended to ensure that the university system is more inclusive of racial minorities and others who feel marginalized on the Columbia, Mo., campus.
Which means Middleton is stepping into a charged atmosphere.
He is used to that.
As a founder of the Legion of Black Collegians — described by Mizzou as the only black student government in the country — Middleton delivered their list of demands to the then-chancellor in 1969, he says.
Middleton says he has kept the list on his desk since then, checking things off as they were achieved.
He was an administrator when a second list of demands was delivered in 2005. Most recently, he said, they have the list of demands from Concerned Student 1950, the leaders of the protests that upended the school.
“It is clear to me that a first step is to devote our attention to addressing those demands,” Middleton said, to ensure that all feel safe and comfortable and all four campuses are living up to their histories and their ideals.
When asked at the news conference announcing his appointment whether that meant meeting the demands, he repeated the word “address,” then responded that each time those demands have been submitted by black student leaders, they have involved complex interactions among many people at the university.
“I intend to lead this university toward satisfying each and every one of those demands that can be satisfied,” he said. The university system has made remarkable progress since 1969, he said.
“We need to continue to make progress.”
Middleton began studying as an undergraduate at MU in the 1960s, in the thick of the national civil rights movement. When he went to law school, he said in an interview on KBIA, he never went throughout the town in Columbia because it was segregated and he was told it wasn’t a good idea for him to leave campus.
He became a lawyer specializing in civil rights in Washington before returning to campus in 1985 as the first black law professor at MU. He became deputy chancellor in 1998 and retired in August.
Middleton’s great-grandfather, a former slave, taught himself law and became the first black lawyer in Mississippi in the late 1800s, according to a profile of Middleton in the Columbia Missourian published in August. The August profile says of Middleton: “He will leave a legacy as a generous, resilient leader who forged the way for equality and the rights of minorities on campus. His life, as a student and later as a professor and administrator, has been devoted to improving race relations on campus through kindness and reason.”
He said he has been meeting with members of Concerned Student 1950 for several weeks, and had met with members of the group before it formed, talking about these same issues. He said he would meet with them after the press conference, and would continue to meet with them until problems are resolved.
He was asked, in effect, about alumni and others who might question whether concerns about incidences of bigotry really necessitated a complete overhaul of the leadership of the university system, and talked about the importance of education, of communication, and working toward understanding.
“One of the things impeding our ability to get beyond this problem is our inability to talk about it,” he said. “We’ve got to understand the ugly, ugly history that permeates our institution and everything we do in this country.
“Once we get the truth on the table I think we’re poised to recognize those differences and move forward.”
“They’ve gotten somebody who understands the context. That’s important,” said Sharon Fries-Britt, a professor of higher education at the University of Maryland. She said Middleton’s experience in leadership at Missouri’s flagship and in civil rights law should help as he steps into a tumultuous situation. “If there is credibility that he brings from his work historically in the state, that will certainly make a big difference.”
On Thursday afternoon the board also announced an accelerated transition at Mizzou, letting interim chancellor Hank Foley take control effective immediately, rather than on Jan. 1.
Middleton will take over a university system in turmoil, as protests and racially charged incidents continued on the MU campus this week.
A sign at the university’s black culture center was reportedly vandalized overnight, one day after threats on social media led to the arrest of a 19-year-old and left the campus shaken.
The Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center sign was damaged at about 12:48 a.m. Thursday, campus police said in a news release. Part of the sign was covered with spray paint, authorities said. The Maneater, Missouri’s student newspaper, posted a photo of the vandalism.
Campus police said that authorities would review security footage during the investigation, which is ongoing.
“Safety and security of our students is our top priority, and we are investigating all crimes as they are reported to us,” Missouri University Police Department Chief R. Doug Schwandt said in a news release. “We are receiving assistance from the Missouri State Highway Patrol and will continue to have an increased security presence on campus for the foreseeable future.”
Missouri’s Legion of Black Collegians tweeted a picture of the vandalized sign early Thursday morning.
“We’re not afraid,” the tweet read. “You clearly are.”
Another tweet posted Thursday morning showed that the sign already had been cleaned.
Tensions have been escalating on the Columbia campus, located about two hours from St. Louis, leading to Wolfe’s and Loftin’s resignations.
The decisions came after a graduate student, Jonathan Butler, embarked on a hunger strike that stretched on for days, and the university’s football team threatened to boycott the remaining games on its schedule.
On Wednesday, a college student was arrested in connection with threats he allegedly made on social media, MU police announced. Hunter M. Park didn’t attend Mizzou, but he did study at an institution in Rolla, Mo., that is within the UM system.
Park was charged with “making a terroristic threat” and was expected to be arraigned Thursday.
Connor B. Stottlemyre, a student at Northwest Missouri State University, was arrested for allegedly making terroristic threats. He wrote a post on the social media app Yik Yak saying he would shoot all black people on campus, according to Clarence Green, the university police chief.
Mizzou operated on a “regular schedule” after reports of the threats and Park’s arrest, according to an MU alert about the incident, but the campus did appear quieter during the day. “Threats and fear nearly bring MU campus to a standstill,” read a headline in the Columbia Missourian, and Twitter users posted photos of empty buildings and closed businesses.
Colleges across the country are debating issues of race on campus, and protest marches, walk-outs, petitions and student-government statements are intensifying the debate on several campuses. An anonymous threat to kill black people at Howard University, with reference to frustration over the change in leadership at Mizzou, frightened many students there. In California, an administrator was forced to resign.
At many schools, from Miami to Boston to Indiana to Louisiana to Oregon, students wore black to show support for the protests at Mizzou.
At Bowie State University, the campus held a rally Thursday night after graffiti, apparently a swastika, was found on the university’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Communication Arts Center and investigated by police as a hate crime.
It has been a tumultuous couple of weeks at Yale, with emotional confrontations between students and faculty members and top administrators after two recent incidents ignited long-standing concerns about the racial climate on campus. On Wednesday night, more than a thousand people filled a chapel for a “teach-in” about issues facing minority students.
Students at Smith College in Massachusetts walked out of classes Wednesday to send a message about issues minorities face on campuses across the country.
At Georgetown University, the Senate of the Student Association will vote on a resolution Sunday “to stand in solidarity with students of color facing institutional injustice on college campuses across the country,” Enushe Khan, the speaker of the senate, explained in an e-mail. “We also hope this resolution will spur further conversation on how to address institutional injustice on our own campus.”
At Claremont McKenna College in California, where students have been protesting over racial issues, a group presented demands to administrators Wednesday, including that the dean of students step down.
On Thursday, Mary Spellman resigned as dean of students.
The president of the junior class, Kris Brackmann, resigned after another student posted a photo of her with a group wearing Halloween costumes that some found offensive. (Brackmann is seen at the bottom of the photo with a costume drawn from a Justin Bieber video.)
On Wednesday, Claremont McKenna’s president, Hiram Chodosh, wrote a message to the campus community outlining steps the university will take to improve the campus climate, including adding a new administrator focused on diversity issues and a review of the dean of students office. He wrote: “As you know, our students have documented many disturbing stories, and disseminated them through flyers across the campus. I stand by our students. I support their right to speak out forcefully, and want their voices to be heard.
“In this extraordinarily important moment for our campus, I have asked that staff disregard our campus posting rules and refrain from removing these flyers until Monday morning to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to read and reflect on these narratives. I urge each of you to consider, discuss, and engage thoughtfully with what you read and hear from your own experience and point of view.”
At Ithaca College in upstate New York, hundreds of people walked out of classes Wednesday, gathered at the school’s Free Speech Rock, chanted and made demands, including the resignation of Tom Rochon, the school’s president. Students are voting this month in a student-government-led referendum on whether the student body has no confidence in Rochon, and the faculty council formally decided Wednesday night to vote on whether the faculty has confidence in his leadership.
Tension had been building for a couple of months, said Yena Seo, a sophomore who is vice president of campus affairs for the student government association at Ithaca, but it intensified during the past month because of two incidents. At an alumni panel, an alumna of color described herself as having a “savage hunger to make it happen,” and two others on the panel, both white men, several times called her “the savage.”
An unaffiliated fraternity posted an invitation to a party that many on campus found racially offensive. And some students were angry that the president did not seem to be responsive to it, Seo said.
They have been watching events at Mizzou with interest.
“With all of these events and movements and demonstrations occurring at a number of different college campuses across the country, it does send a pretty powerful message,” Seo said. “I think that students are definitely feeling a lot more empowered because so many students from across the nation are gathering to show their support for these movements that are happening.”
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