Campus Protests Spur Day of Change
Months of student and faculty protests over racial tensions and other issues that all but paralyzed the University of Missouri campus culminated Monday in an extraordinary coup for the demonstrators, as the president of the university system resigned and the chancellor of the flagship campus here said he would step down to a less prominent role at the end of the year.
The threat of a boycott by the Missouri football team dealt the highest-profile blow to the president, Timothy M. Wolfe, and the chancellor, R. Bowen Loftin, but anger at the administration had been growing since August, when the university said it would stop paying for health insurance for graduate teaching and research assistants.
It reversed course, but not before the graduate assistants held demonstrations, threatened a walkout, took the first steps toward forming a union and joined forces with students demonstrating against racism.
Then the university came under fire from Republicans for ties its medical schools and medical center had to Planned Parenthood. The university severed those ties, drawing criticism from Democrats that it had caved in to political pressure.
But it was charges of persistent racism that time and time again sparked the strongest reactions, along with complaints that the administration did not take the problem seriously enough.
Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, said, “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.”
Many of the students and faculty members who took part in demonstrations had also been inspired by the protest movement sparked last year in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, after a white police officer there killed Michael Brown, an unarmed Black man, and they were experienced at using social media in organizing. They saw themselves as part of a continuum of activism linking Ferguson, other deaths at the hands of police, protests on campuses around the country and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Mr. Wolfe, 57, was hired in 2012 from the corporate world, not academia,van outsider brought in to cut costs in the four-campus system. That was no recipe for popularity, but the last three months left him particularly isolated. He announced his resignation just before a meeting of the university’s governing body, the Board of Curators, amid speculation that it might try to oust him.
Mr. Wolfe said he took responsibility for the anger and frustration on campus, asserting that conversations with community leaders, students, faculty, donors and others led him to his decision, more than just the football players’ threatened boycott.
“What was starting to become clear was the frustration and anger was evident, and it was something that needed to be done that was immediate and substantial for us to heal,” Mr. Wolfe said at a news conference.
As the two resignations of Mr. Wolfe and Mr. Loftin were announced, the Board of Curators unveiled a slate of new initiatives to address racial tensions on campus, including hiring a diversity, inclusion and equity officer for the entire University of Missouri system. The university will also provide additional support to students, faculty and staff members who experience discrimination; create a task force to create plans for improving diversity and inclusion; and require diversity and inclusion training for all faculty, staff members and incoming students.
Officials said Mr. Loftin would remain at the university in a research role.
Opposition to the administration reached a crescendo in the last week. A graduate student, Jonathan Butler, who was a veteran of the Ferguson protests, held a highly publicized hunger strike, saying he would not eat again until Mr. Wolfe was gone. Protesters formed an encampment on campus plaza and stayed there around the clock. A coalition of Jewish groups told Mr. Loftin that they were “dismayed” by his lack of action after a swastika was drawn on a dormitory wall. Deans of nine of its schools called for Mr. Loftin’s removal.
On Monday morning, the student government demanded Mr. Wolfe’s ouster, and much of the faculty sent word to students that classes were canceled for two days, in favor of a teach-in focused on race relations.
But it was the football team that may have dealt the fatal blow to the university’s leaders, when players announced on Saturday that they would refuse to play as long as the president remained in office, and their head coach, Gary Pinkel, said he supported them. The prospect of a strike by a team belonging in the country’s most dominant college football league, the Southeastern Conference, drew national attention, and officials said that just forfeiting the team’s game Saturday against Brigham Young University would cost the university $1 million. The team is 4-5 and in danger of not being invited to a postseason bowl game.
“That got the attention of the alumni and the board, along with a substantial penalty they would have been facing,” said Representative William Lacy Clay, a Democrat who represents part of the St. Louis area. “That would have been a disaster for their recruiting of Black athletes and of Black students to the university.”
Mr. Pinkel said the main concern of the players was Mr. Butler. “My players deeply cared about this guy, and he was dying,” he said.
Though most players declined to speak Monday, a team captain, Ian Simon, said in a statement that the players “just wanted to use our platform to take a stance for a fellow concerned student on an issue.” He added, “We love the game, but in end of the day, it is just that; a game.”
Thousands of students and faculty members gathered Monday morning at the heart of the campus. At word of Mr. Wolfe’s resignation, some cheered, others hugged and cried, a few danced, and Mr. Butler said he would eat for the first time in a week.
The Board of Curators has the power to hire and fire top administrators, and the curators are appointed by the governor. But Donald L. Cupps, a member of the board, said Mr. Wolfe was not asked to leave, and resigned out of concern for the university. “We have a national image to protect and enhance,” he said.
Not everyone was pleased with the resignations. W. Dudley McCarter, a former president of the university’s alumni group, said alumni, in calls and emails on Monday, had expressed disappointment in Mr. Wolfe’s decision. “They feel like he was backed into a corner and was made a scapegoat for things he didn’t do,” Mr. McCarter said.
A series of racist incidents in the last few months spurred calls for change, and protesters said the president at first did not take their complaints seriously, and that his later responses were not strong enough or swift enough.
The president of the Missouri Students Association, Payton Head, who is Black, touched off the intense discussion of race in September when he posted on Facebook that a group of men had yelled racial slurs at him, and said it was not the first time he had suffered that kind of abuse at the university. His post was shared thousands of times, and drew widespread coverage.
In early October, the Legion of Black Collegians, a student group, was rehearsing a homecoming event when a white man walked onto their stage and used racial epithets. When activists tried to confront Mr. Wolfe days later at the homecoming parade, he avoided them, leading to accusations that he was dismissive of their concerns.
Later that month, the swastika was found, scrawled on a wall in feces. An activist group, Concerned Student 1950--a reference to the year the university enrolled its first Black student--was formed to demand that administration address what it said was pervasive racism.
Mr. Clay, who is Black, said he spoke with Mr. Wolfe on Saturday about Black students’ concerns and the health of Mr. Butler. Even at that late date, the president was “kind of oblivious to the fact that he was at the center of this,” Mr. Clay said.
Mr. Wolfe said on Sunday that “a systemwide diversity and inclusion strategy” that addressed student concerns would be unveiled in April. But that drew angry reactions from protesters as being too little, too late.
The controversies drew the attention of major donors; some feared damage to the university’s standing and fund-raising.
“I think Tim Wolfe is a very competent leader, but there are 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,” said Don Walsworth, whose family has given the university millions of dollars. “Unfortunately, I don’t think the university did that.”
After the announcement of Mr. Wolfe’s resignation, Mr. Butler told a cheering crowd that the graduate students’ protests and the push against racism were part of a larger cause, and cited the months of protests, email campaigns and other actions calling for change on campus. “It should not have taken this much, and it is disgusting and vile that we find ourselves in the place that we do,” he said.
State officials said that behind the scenes, there had been growing dissension among university leaders, and that Mr. Wolfe had wanted the Board of Curators to fire Mr. Loftin, who became chancellor last year.
Michael A. Middleton, a deputy chancellor emeritus who was the university’s first Black law professor, had been involved in talks between the administration and protesters over policy changes. He said that Mr. Wolfe was seen as stiff and aloof, and that a confrontation between the president and students on Friday outside a fund-raising event in Kansas City dealt a blow to those talks. Still, as recently as Sunday night, Mr. Middleton said, Mr. Wolfe seemed determined to stay on.
Mr. Wolfe moved to Columbia as a fourth-grade student, attended high school here--and was quarterback of its state championship football team--and earned an undergraduate degree from Missouri, where his father was a communications professor. He spent decades working at IBM, and later was a senior executive at Novell.
He stepped into controversy almost as soon as he returned to the university three years ago, withdrawing financial support from the University of Missouri Press, then reversing course under fire. But last year, when the Board of Curators voted to extend his contract to 2018, the move was not controversial, said Don M. Downing, who was then the board chairman.
“President Wolfe has thoughtfully transformed our strategic planning process in a way that focuses our limited resources on priorities while reducing or eliminating waste and redundancies,” said Mr. Downing, a former chief deputy attorney general of Missouri, who no longer sits on the board. But given recent events, he said, Mr. Wolfe’s position was probably untenable, adding, “It’s a sad day.”
But many students were jubilant. “It was surreal--I don’t even know if I’ve had enough time to fully process it,” Reuben Faloughi said. “I’m happy my friend Jonathan survived, and I’m happy Tim Wolfe is no longer in charge of the U.M. System.”