Several University of Missouri organizations, including the football team and the student association, saw their demand met Monday when university system President Tim Wolfe announced he was stepping down amid a controversy over race relations at the school’s main campus.
Saying he takes “full responsibility for the inaction that has occurred,” he asked that the university community listen to each other’s problems and “stop intimidating each other.”
“This is not — I repeat, not — the way change should come about. Change comes from listening, learning, caring and conversation,” he said. “Use my resignation to heal and start talking again.”
His decision, he said, “came out of love, not hate,” and he urged the university to “focus on what we can change” in the future, not what’s happened in the past.
Students, faculty and staff converged on the Carnahan Quad following the announcement. There, they linked arms and swayed side to side, singing, “We Shall Overcome.”
Wolfe’s resignation came after football players, both black and white, threatened — with their coach’s support — not to practice or play again until graduate student Jonathan Butler ended his hunger strike.
Butler said he stopped eating last week and demanded the removal of Wolfe, who until Monday presided over the university system, which includes the main University of Missouri campus, along with the University of Missouri-St. Louis, University of Missouri-Kansas City and Missouri University of Science and Technology.
He tweeted after Wolfe’s news conference that he had ended his hunger strike and said, “More change is to come!! #TheStruggleContinues.”
He told CNN his reaction to Wolfe’s resignation was “just wow,” and he was crying because the moment meant so much to him. His fight was not solely against racism, but against sexism and homophobia as well. He fought, he said, because so many others fought for equality before him.
“I was just so overwhelmed about what this truly means … that students who want to go to college and get an education can now have a fighting chance at having a fair education on a campus that is safe and inclusive,” he said. “I wish you guys could be on campus to see the love that is permeating among the students, staff and faculty.”
A statement from Missouri athletic director Mack Rhoades and head football coach Gary Pinkel released after Wolfe’s announcement said football activities would resume Tuesday. The two men addressed the media Monday afternoon.
“There’s no playbook. There’s no script for what all of us have been dealing with. And I think, certainly, it’s been also a great learning experience for everyone involved,” said Rhoades.
“As we move forward, it’s paramount as a campus and a community that this not divide us, but rather bring us together to listen, to grow, to understand and to create positive change,” the athletic director said.
If the Tigers had failed to take the field Saturday against the Brigham Young University Cougars at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Chiefs, the team would have been forced to pay a cancellation fee of $1 million, according to a copy of the contract published in The Kansas City Star earlier this year.
“Our team’s excited about getting going again and playing, and we’re looking forward to our game against BYU this weekend,” Pinkel told reporters, saying he got involved because he supports his players and because Butler’s life was “on the line.”
“My support of my players had nothing to do with anyone losing their job. With something like this, football became secondary,” Pinkel said.
About 30 players made their thoughts known Saturday night in a tweet posted by Missouri’s Legion of Black Collegians.
“The athletes of color on the University of Missouri football team truly believe ‘Injustice Anywhere is a threat to Justice Everywhere,’ ” read the tweet. “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’ experience.”
Though the protests garnered support from former Mizzou football players — including former defensive tackle Lucas Vincent and Michael Sam, the first openly gay player to be drafted in the NFL — at least one former player slammed the players for what he called “a pure lack of responsibility and ungratefulness.”
“Playing football at the University of Missouri is a privilege, a privilege a lot (of) individuals would take from you, if you are willing to give it up,” Luke Lambert, who played linebacker from 2007 to 2011, wrote on Facebook. “Are you truly following through with the message sent to the public or will you still collect the monthly scholarship check to enjoy that night out, eat in the free dinning hall, earn the free degree and enjoy the free gear handed to you during your tenure at the University of Missouri?”
Complaints and concerns
The protests drew support off the gridiron as well, with two graduate student groups calling for walkouts at the university on Monday and Tuesday in solidarity with protesters. A group of concerned faculty also offered its support, saying it would stand in solidarity with the students.
“Faculty will meet at the Carnahan Quadrangle starting at 10am and will be present throughout the day to respond to student questions in the form of a teach in. Students are encouraged to check email for information from their professors,” said a statement distributed via social media.
The University of Missouri Faculty Council on University Policy issued a statement expressing “deep concern with regard to the lack of communication and the growing uncertainty about the leadership of the University of Missouri system and MU campus. This unresolved situation erodes our ability to perform faculty duties of teaching, research, and outreach.”
African-American students at Missouri have complained of inaction on the part of school leaders in dealing with racism on the overwhelmingly white Columbia campus. Black student leaders have conveyed their displeasure over students openly using racial slurs and other incidents.
In October, a person used feces to draw a swastika on a wall in one of the residence halls, and in the spring, there was a “similar use of anti-Semitic language and symbolism” at another residence hall, according to Residence Halls Association President Billy Donley, who said in a letter he was upset that most students were unaware of the incident.
In another recent incident, a group of African-American students complained that a school safety officer didn’t aggressively pursue an apparently drunken white student who disrupted their gathering using a racial slur.
Payton Head, president of the Missouri Students Association, wrote an explicit Facebook post describing his own experiences on campus. White men in a passing pickup truck had hurled a racial epithet at him as he walked across campus in September, he said.
“I really just want to know why my simple existence is such a threat to society. 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,” he wrote.
He also relayed stories from friends, including a Muslim woman who had been called a terrorist and women who had been harassed on campus because their outfits were “asking for it.”
“And if this post made you feel uncomfortable, GOOD! That means I’m doing my job. It’s time to wake up Mizzou,” he wrote, signing it, “Your Ni****/Fa**** Missouri Students Association President, Payton Head.”
‘Out students are being ignored’
Wolfe said Sunday that he was “dedicated to ongoing dialogue to address these very complex, societal issues,” but the group organizing many of the protests, Concerned Student 1950, which derives its name from the year blacks were first admitted to Mizzou, had already made it clear that it felt the time for talk had passed.
“We are tired of dialogue! We want action,” the group tweeted Friday.
At the school’s homecoming parade last month, African-American students blocked Wolfe’s car in a protest calling for greater action on the part of administrators.
Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin ordered mandatory sensitivity training for faculty and students, but black students said the gestures were insufficient and called for school officials to implement broader cultural sensitivity training, increase minority staffing and take other steps.
Monday, the Missouri Students Association tweeted a letter it had sent to the university system’s Board of Curators demanding the resignation of Wolfe, who they said had “undeniably failed us and the students we represent.”
“The academic careers of our students are suffering. The mental health of our campus is under constant attack. Our students are being ignored,” the letter said. “Every student’s ability to learn is now affected and threatened by the campus climate.”
The letter came after several students confronted Wolfe on Friday, asking him if he could define systemic oppression. One person off camera mocked Wolfe, asking if he needed to Google it.
“I will give you an answer and I’m sure it will be a wrong answer,” Wolfe replied before defining it as: “You don’t believe you have equal opportunity for success –”
He was cut off as his answer drew howls of condemnation from the students, who seized on his use of “believe.”
“Did you just blame us?” a woman asks him as he walks away. “Did you just blame black students?”
Following Wolfe’s resignation, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon thanked the former businessman for stepping down, saying that his departure was “a necessary step toward healing and reconciliation.”
“There is more work to do, and now the University of Missouri must move forward — united by a commitment to excellence, and respect and tolerance for all,” Nixon’s statement said.
The University of Missouri’s Columbia campus has a population of 35,000 students. The undergraduate student body is about 79% white, while African-Americans make up roughly 8% of undergraduates. The school’s faculty is also more 70% white with black representation of just over 3%, according to the university.