On Monday, the University of Missouri system president Tim Wolfe resigned amid student protests against his handling of racial incidents on campus. “My decision to resign comes out of love, not hate,” Wolfe said. “Please, please use this resignation to heal and start talking again.”
Wolfe’s decision comes during a tense time at the University of Missouri’s Columbia campus. On November 2, MU graduate student Jonathan Butler announced his decision to go on a hunger strike until Wolfe took his concerns, as well as the concerns of activist group Concerned Student 1950, seriously.
“Students are not able to achieve their full academic potential because of the inequalities and obstacles they face,” Butler wrote. “In each of these scenarios, Mr. Wolfe had ample opportunity to create policies and reform that could shift the culture of Mizzou in a positive direction but in each scenario he failed to do so.” Students camped out on MU’s quad to show solidarity with Butler, but the conflict came to a head when University of Missouri football players announced they would boycott games until Wolfe stepped down, which made national news.
For years, the University of Missouri has struggled with addressing race and diversity on campus. In 2001, the university conducted a survey to gauge campus-wide attitudes toward diversity. Based on those findings, a chief diversity officer was appointed in 2005, but efforts to include a required diversity course in the school’s curriculum stalled out in 2010 and still haven’t been implemented. “People tend to focus on this very obvious act of racism, as opposed to the more subvert acts of oppression which occur every day,” former Four Front chairwoman ChaToyya Sewell told student newspaper The Maneater at the time.
Acts of oppression on campus and beyond have continued, including racist graffiti and fliers posted around campus, cotton balls spread in front of a black culture center (a reference to slaves picking cotton), and a newspaper column accusing black students of vandalism in Greek town and telling them to, “stay in their little worlds.” (Many instances took place in February, which is black history month.) In each case, officials have investigated and issued statements, but there has been little change. When Tim Wolfe was hired as the University of Missouri System President in 2012, he said he’d been dealt a “really really strong hand.” In reality, he was handed a broken system. In the end, his resolution to enact change came years too late. Here is a timeline of some of the events that led to the fall of the university president.
Aug. 9, 2014
Police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. According to Butler, the university failed to respond. “There was national coverage, so for the school to not cover that or really address that, and we are only two hours away, I think was a huge mistake on their part and contributed to the current cultural environment that we have,” he told the Washington Post. “It just shows that there are racially motivated things—murders, assaults, other things—that happen and we are just going to sweep them under the rug.”
Dec. 15, 2014
Concerned Student 1950—which refers to the first year black students were admitted to MU— protested wristbands issued by a local club reading “Hands Up, Pants UP.” The crowd blocked traffic for more than three hours.
Sept. 12, 2015
Missouri Student Association president Payton Head published a Facebook post about his experience being called the “N-word” repeatedly on campus the night before. The post sparked a viral response on social media and garnered national media coverage.
“I really just want to know why my simple existence is such a threat to society,” Head wrote. “For those of you who wonder why I’m always talking about the importance of inclusion and respect, it’s because I’ve experienced moments like this multiple times at THIS university, making me not feel included here.”
Five days after the incident, Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin finally issued a response: “I have heard from far too many of you who have experienced incidents of bias and discrimination on and off campus,” he said. “This is particularly hurtful when our students are the target.”
Loftin called on MU students to “show our community and the world that Mizzou will not tolerate hate.”
About 100 students with “Racism Lives Here,” a student movement calling for action from the administration, gathered on campus to protest, chanting “racism lives here” and “shut it down.”
“The University of Missouri does not care about black students,” Danielle Walker, a graduate student, said at the protest.
According to the Missourian, there were no university representatives at the rally.
Racism Lives Here led a second protest in the MU Student Center. Danielle Walker called for concrete action: “We want to see a hate crime policy initiated. We want our chancellor to formally make an announcement that we do have a racial problem here on campus and that they are seeking to make sure it gets addressed properly.”
The Legion of Black Collegiates wrote a letter about a student yelling slurs at them. Later that day, Chancellor Loftin posted a video message to condemn the racist incident:
Student protesters with Concerned Student 1950 blocked Tim Wolfe’s car during the MU Homecoming Parade to bring attention to racial discrimination on campus.
After the parade, Butler told the Missourian: “We’ve sent emails, we’ve sent tweets, we’ve messaged but we’ve gotten no response back from the upper officials at Mizzou to really make change on this campus. And so we directed it to him personally. That we are here. We want to make our presence known, that we are here and we deserve respect, we deserve humanity.”
Concerned Student 1950 issued a statement with eight demands, including Wolfe’s handwritten apology and official resignation.
A swastika drawn with human feces appeared on an MU residence hall, which the Residence Hall Association deemed an “act of hate.” In response, the Jewish Student Association connected with the Legion of Black Collegians, and both used the hashtag #hateliveshere.
Members of Concerned Students 1950 met with Wolfe to address their set of demands, which they say were not taken seriously. The group wrote in a statement that Wolfe “did not mention any plan of action to address the demands or help us work together to create a more safe and inclusive campus.”
Butler went on a hunger strike to protest “a slew of racist, sexist, homophobic, etc., incidents that have dynamically disrupted the learning experience” at MU. “During this hunger strike, I will not consume any food or nutritional sustenance at the expense of my health until either Tim Wolfe is removed from office or my internal organs fail and my life is lost.”
That night, students camped out on the quad to express solidarity with Butler.
The Forum on Graduate Rights and Concerned Student 1950 met with Chancellor Loftin and President Wolfe. Wolfe also addressed students outside the forum, telling them, “I want to talk, I want to understand this, I want to come up with a way that we can get progress made on these particular issues.”
The MU English department voted no confidence in Chancellor Loftin. In a letter sent by email to Wolfe and the UM System Board of Curators, the department wrote, “While we recognize Chancellor Loftin’s service, his twenty-one month tenure has been marked by dereliction of duty in maintaining the quality and reputation of graduate education, violations of the bedrock principle of shared governance and failure to defend the University’s educational mission against outside political pressure.”
Concerned Student 1950 held a demonstration before the Mississippi-MU football game, chanting “Join us in the revolution.” That night, Head posted this tweet:
Chancellor Loftin responded: “Sad to see more hate speech hiding behind anonymity. Racism, bias, discrimination have no place here.”
Wolfe issued a delayed apology for his response at the Homecoming Parade:
“I regret my reaction at the MU homecoming parade when the ConcernedStudent1950 group approached my car,” the statement read. “I am sorry, and my apology is long overdue. My behavior seemed like I did not care. That was not my intention. I was caught off guard in that moment. Nonetheless, had I gotten out of the car to acknowledge the students and talk with them perhaps we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
“I am asking us to move forward in addressing the racism that exists at our university—and it does exist. Together we must rise to the challenge of combatting racism, injustice, and intolerance.”
MU football players announced they would boycott all practices and games. “We will no longer participate in any football related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed due to his negligence toward marginalized students’ experiences,” they announced in a tweet sent from the Legion of Black Collegians account. Sixty of the 124 players on the roster are black, but it’s unclear how many participated in the boycott.
Football coach Gary Pinkel showed his support for players.
Wolfe issued a statement saying, “I am dedicated to ongoing dialogue to address these very complex, societal issues as they affect our campus community.”
Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill issued a statement calling for action: “At this point I think it is essential that the University of Missouri Board of Curators send a clear message to the students at Mizzou that there is an unqualified commitment to address racism on campus,” she said. “As a graduate who cares deeply about Mizzou, I’m confident that my university can and will do better in supporting an environment of tolerance and inclusion.
Two Republican state lawmakers called for Wolfe’s resignation. One, Rep. Caleb Jones, said it was time for a change in leadership, “and to start the healing process.” The other, Rep. Steve Cookson, the chairman of the Missouri House Committee on Higher Education, said, “it has become clear that the MU system leadership can no longer effectively lead and should step aside.”
Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder issued a statement denouncing the tactics of Concerned Student 1950 and calling for law and order on campus:
“While I respect the right to peaceful protest and sincerely pray for the health and safety of all involved, I cannot ignore the necessity of law and order at our universities,” he wrote. “Student concerns must be listened to and heard out. There is a process for that. 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, and no student is served by that.”
Monday, November 9
University of Missouri Black Alumni released a letter citing their “deep concern about the environment at [their] beloved alma mater.” The letter cites numerous instances of racism leading up to this year.
The Missouri Students Association, MU’s undergraduate government, publically released its letter to the University of Missouri board of curators. The letter cited Michael Brown’s death and the riots in Ferguson as inciting incidents to the campus’ climate of unrest.
“Tim Wolfe, as the leader of the University of Missouri system, symbolizes the leadership of this community,” the letter reads. “This leadership has undeniably failed us and the students we represent. He has not only enabled a culture of racism since the start of his tenure in 2012, but blatantly ignored and disrespected the concerns of students.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon released a statement regarding Wolfe’s resignation, calling it a “necessary step toward healing and reconciliation on the University of Missouri campus.”
Correction Nov. 10, 2015: This post originally misidentified the Missouri governor as Richard Nixon instead of Jay Nixon.