A host of complex issues have been mounting for Wolfe in recent months, from racial tensions to his handling of cost-cutting moves and issues like health insurance for graduate assistants.
And in his remarks Monday about his resignation, Wolfe used one word in particular that offers not only a major reason for his departure but a prescient lesson for leaders everywhere facing an imminent crisis. "I take full responsibility for the inaction that has occurred."
That inaction—or even any perception of his inaction—was named again and again as an explanation for how sentiment turned so quickly against Wolfe and other leaders at Mizzou. (R. Bowen Loftin, the chancellor who oversees the university's primary Columbia, Mo. campus, also said Monday evening he would step down and move to a new role.)
Students said they were frustrated by what they saw as the school's and Wolfe's lack of action in the wake of racial incidents that had occurred on campus, which included the student body president and a group of black students being called racial slurs, as well as a swastika being drawn with human feces on a dorm wall.
The Missouri Students Association, in a letter calling for Wolfe to step down, wrote that the school had "met the shooting of Mike Brown with silence," referring to the shooting of a black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., located just hours from Columbia. The letter also said that Wolfe had "ignored and disrespected the concerns of students."
A student activist named Jonathan Butler, who went on a hunger strike in protest, complained students hadn't gotten responses from "upper officials at Mizzou to really make change on this campus," according to the school's newspaper.
The football team, meanwhile, cited Wolfe's "negligence toward marginalized students’ experiences."
Rep. Steve Cookson, a Republican state lawmaker and chairman of the Missouri House Committee on Higher Education, called Wolfe's reaction to the activists "callous" and urged his resignation or removal. And Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, issued a statement Sunday supporting protesters and saying "concerns must be addressed."
Moreover, at least one major donor seemed to indicate the lack of speed and control with which Wolfe handled the uproar was a factor. Former Board of Curators chairman Don Walsworth told The New York Times that while Wolfe was competent as a leader, the university did not do the "three things in crisis management that you have to do: be abundantly honest, you have to work quickly and you have to control the message."
The school may have been taking steps to address the problems—Chancellor Loftin had spoken out against bias and announced online diversity training, while Wolfe had apologized for his highly criticized reaction to students during a recent parade, held meetings with student protesters, and said the school intended to announce a "diversity and inclusion strategy" in April. Yet the donor struck on the crux of the leadership problem.
Many students and protesters saw the efforts as reactive or something that "doubled down on 'business as usual'," as a graduate student group said. Wolfe's after-the-fact gestures did little to counter the image of the university system president detached from the emotionally charged students who protested in front of him.
What happened with Wolfe is one of the most common perils of crisis management: The narrative got ahead of him, and the responses and apologies he offered came too late. While it may be increasingly impossible to "control the message," in this case, it spun wildly, intensely out of control as it turned into a national story.
He was portrayed as reactive at best and unresponsive at worst—perhaps the biggest problem for those trying to manage a crisis. Especially at such times, people expect leaders who are proactive, engaged and plugged in.
By the time of his resignation, Wolfe seemed to recognize the power that decisive action could have had. "We need to use my resignation—please, please, use this resignation—to heal, not to hate, and let's move forward together for a brighter tomorrow."