Missouri president and chancellor quit after football team walks out
Jonathan Butler uses a megaphone Aug. 26, 2015, to encourage others to stand and chant during a “day of action” celebrating graduate students and draw attention to their demands in Traditions Plaza on the University of Missouri campus in Columbia, Mo. (INSET: The University President Tim Wolfe) (Photo: Daniel Brenner, AP)
By Covey Son and Aamer Madhani, USA TODAY
COLUMBIA, MO — The University of Missouri system’s president, Tim Wolfe, and the chancellor of the flag-ship campus, R. Bowen Loftin, announced on Monday that they were resigning their posts 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 the administrators 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.
Several hours later, Loftin, chancellor of the university’s Columbia campus, announced he will step down from his post by the end of the year as well.
“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.”
Loftin said he would transition into a new role on the Columbia campus “where I will work with many people across the university and with the system to advance our research mission.”
Earlier in the day, deans of nine departments at the Columbia campus had called for the dismissal of the chancellor, according to a letter obtained by the Columbia Daily Tribune.
In addition to expressing their displeasure about Loftin’s leadership in dealing with the concerns raised by the Black students, the deans also complained about Loftin’s recent decision to eliminate and then later reinstate graduate assistant health insurance. That decision had also drawn protest from the graduate student community at Mizzou.
The situation had become so emotional on campus 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 one million dollars.
The situation at Missouri, the oldest public university west of the Mississippi River, 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 point-ed to several recent events on campus that underscore a hostile environment for Black students.
Student Government President Payton Head, who is bBack, 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 to show solidarity with the student protesters. The undergraduate student government also formally called on Wolfe to step down.
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.
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. “
Donald Cupps, the chairman of the Board of Curators, said the body was prepared to meet with the student protesters. The Board also announced it would take several steps to address some of the protesters’ concerns, including the creation of a diversity and inclusion officer for the entire University of Missouri system, a review of student and faculty code of conduct, and that the system will create a new task force to address issues of race and equity on campus.
“We aren’t going to solve this problem overnight. But what we’re going to do is move forward and solve some of these problems if not all of these problems in the future,” Cupps said. “We cannot change the hearts of individuals but hopefully we can educate those individuals so they can change their own hearts.”
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 bachelor’s 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.
Follow USA TODAY reporter Aamer Madhani on Twitter: @AamerISmad