Black students complained of inaction by school leaders in dealing with racism
School president resigned just days after football players demanded his ouster
On Tuesday, students went to classes as they usually do. Football players intended to take the field in preparation for their game against Brigham Young University on Saturday.
But something was very different at the University of Missouri campus.
Students on Tuesday woke up to what protesters call a small but important victory: a weeks-long protest movement that ousted both the university president and the school’s chancellor.
African-American students at Missouri have long complained of a mealy-mouthed response by 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.
Things reached a critical mass Monday when university system President Tim Wolfe stepped down, followed shortly afterward by Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin.
“This is just a beginning in dismantling systems of oppression in higher education, specifically the UM system,” said Marshall Allen, a member of the protest group Concerned Student 1950.
The speed of Wolfe’s resignation shocked many. As late as Sunday, Wolfe didn’t sound like a man who planned to leave his job, putting out a statement expressing a desire to have an “ongoing dialogue to address these very complex, societal issues.”
But the tide had already turned against him Saturday night, when about 30 black members of the Missouri Tigers football team declared in a tweet that they wouldn’t play until Wolfe was gone. By Sunday, more members of the team, black and white, and head coach Gary Pinkel publicly backed the players, and the media started paying attention.
By Monday morning, student groups were calling for walkouts and some faculty offered protesting students their support. The calls for his resignation grew louder.
So Wolfe – who had presided over the university system, which includes the main University of Missouri campus in Columbia, along with the University of Missouri-St. Louis, University of Missouri-Kansas City and Missouri University of Science and Technology – stepped down, saying he took “full responsibility for the inaction that has occurred” and urged the university community to listen to each other’s problems.
“It is my belief we stopped listening to each other; we didn’t respond or react,” he said. “Use my resignation to heal and start talking again.”
Students, faculty and staff converged on the Carnahan Quad after Wolfe’s announcement. There, they linked arms and swayed side to side, singing, “We Shall Overcome.”
Though the protesting students and some faculty say racial problems on campus go back decades, the current crisis took flight back in September, when Student Government President Payton Head took to Facebook to complain about bigotry and anti-homosexual and anti-transgender attitudes at the school after people riding in the back of a pickup truck screamed racial slurs at him.
“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.
In early October, a drunken white student disrupted the Legion of Black Collegians, an African-American student group, while the group prepped for homecoming and used a racial slur when he was asked to leave.
Later that month, Concerned Student 1950 – named for the year African-American students were first admitted to the university – issued a list of demands, including an apology from Wolfe, his removal from office and a more comprehensive racial awareness and inclusion curriculum overseen by minority students and faculty.
Graduate student Jonathan Butler felt so strongly about what was happening on campus that he stopped eating. Early last week, he launched a hunger strike, vowing to keep it up until Wolfe stepped down. After Wolfe’s announcement, Butler ended his strike and tweeted, “More change is to come!! #TheStruggleContinues.”
L’Damian Washington, a former wide receiver on the football team, said that he was happy the team was able to add leverage to Butler’s hunger strike and that the protest wasn’t just about Missouri or being black. It was about discrimination in all forms everywhere, he said.
“Only a minority knows what it feels like to be a minority on campus,” he said.
It’s difficult to put yourself in others’ shoes, he said, explaining that even though he and Butler are black, his experience – as a football player – on campus was different from Butler’s.
Asked if he had ever encountered racism on campus, he pointed to a 2010 incident when white students scattered cotton balls outside the Black Culture Center. Washington didn’t have particularly harsh words for Wolfe but said there was sense that he took “a lackadaisical approach to get things fixed. … I think just turned a blind eye to it.”
A statement from head coach Pinkel and Missouri athletic director Mack Rhoades, 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. “I just know my players were suffering and they felt awful, and again, I’m like their dad, and I’m going to help them in any way I can.”
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.
CNN’s Eliott C. McLaughlin, Michael Pearson, Mariano Castillo, Joe Sutton and Polo Sandoval contributed to this report.