Justice prevails at University of Missouri: President Wolfe steps down

The president of the University of Missouri system resigned Monday after the football team joined others on campus in an open revolt over his handling of racial tensions at the school.

President Tim Wolfe, a former business executive with no previous experience in academic leadership, took what he described as “full responsibility for the frustration” students expressed and said their complaints were “clear” and “real.”

He made the announcement at the start of what had been expected to be a lengthy closed-door meeting of the school’s governing board.

The black student group, Concerned Students 1950, saw the resignation as a victory. The group has expressed opposition to the university leadership after the administration’s lack of response to the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson and has complained of racial slurs and other problems on the overwhelmingly white flagship campus of the state’s four-college system.

Student Council President Peyton Head posted on Facebook information about a hate crime that had been committed against him. People in a passing pickup truck had shouted racial slurs. It went viral and also contributed to the rising protests on campus.

The protests, which featured a weeklong hunger strike by one student,  came to a head two days ago, when at least 30 black football players announced that they would not play until Wolfe, the president, was gone.

The resignation is considered a victory by students and faculty who sought justice, by African Americans mobilizing against discrimination and by pro-labor elements in the community who see student athletes also as workers exploited by large college institutions.

It is after the players, who generate enormous profits for the university, joined in the protests that the resignation came quickly. Had the football players remained on strike the university would have lost millions of dollars in revenue generated from the games.

Photos of the announcement from the players went viral on the Internet showing the team, including many white players, sitting together with the coach who said he was backing the strike by his players.

The school stood to lose $1 million even if only this week’s Saturday game had been forfeited. Wolfe’s salary actually uses up half of that profit since he earns $459,000 per year.

The resignation of Wolfe is also seen as a victory for those across the nation who oppose the increasing trend of bringing in high paid businessmen to run universities. People who backed him when he was hired boasted that he would run the university like a business and unfortunately, that is exactly what he did, raising tuition, slashing academic programs and expanding the football stadium.

The model espoused by Wolfe depends upon a complacent group of powerless athletes. The athletes at Missouri University showed that, when organized, they are a strong force with all the power of a focused labor movement.

It was the united action of the faculty, and students, black students in particular, however, that laid the groundwork for the protests which the football players pushed the over the finish line when they joined the fight. Students, faculty, and athletes united to show they can break the grip of corporate America on the nation’s campuses.

“This is not the way change comes about,” Wolfe lamely protested, in his halting statement that was simultaneously apologetic, clumsy, and defiant. It was, contrary to his protestation, exactly the way change came about.

He urged students, faculty and staff to use the resignation “to heal and start talking again to make the changes necessary.”

To many, including protesters at the October Homecoming Parade who were met with threats of excessive force, his words rang hollow for other reasons. At the Homecoming Parade Columbia police had threatened to use pepper spray on students.

Students had blocked Wolfe’s car but he did not get out. The students were removed by police.

Black members of the football team joined the protests on Saturday night. By Sunday, a campus sit-in had grown in size, graduate student groups planned walkouts and politicians began to weigh in.

Until Monday, Wolfe did not indicate any intention to step down. He agreed in a statement issued Sunday that “change is needed” and said the university was working to draw up a plan by April to promote diversity and tolerance.

Students and teachers in Columbia hugged and chanted after the announcement.

Katelyn Brown, a white sophomore from Liberty, said she wasn’t necessarily aware of chronic racism at the school, but she applauded the efforts of black student groups.

“I personally don’t see it a lot, but I’m a middle-class white girl,” she said. “I stand with the people experiencing this.” She credited social media with propelling the protests, saying it “gives people a platform to unite.”

Head football coach Gary Pinkel expressed solidarity with players on Twitter, posting a picture of the team and coaches locking arms. The tweet said: “The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players.”

Pinkel and athletic director Mack Rhoades linked the return of the protesting football players to the end of a hunger strike by a black graduate student named Jonathan Butler, who began the effort Nov. 2 and vowed not to eat until Wolfe was gone.

After Wolfe’s announcement, Butler said in a tweet that his strike was over. Football practice was to resume Tuesday ahead of a Saturday’s game against Brigham Young University at Arrowhead Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs.

The protests began after the student government president, who is black, said in September that people in a passing pickup truck 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.

Frustrations flared again during a homecoming parade, when black protesters blocked Wolfe’s car, and he did not get out and talk to them. They were removed by police.

Also, a swastika drawn in feces was found recently in a dormitory bathroom.

Many of the protests have been led by an organization called Concerned Student 1950, which gets its name from the year the university accepted its first black student. Group members besieged Wolfe’s car at the parade, and they have been conducting a sit-in on a campus plaza since last Monday.

Two trucks flying Confederate flags drove past the site Sunday, a move many saw as an attempt at intimidation. At least 150 students gathered at the plaza Sunday night to pray, sing and read Bible verses.

Also joining in the protest effort were two graduate student groups that called for walkouts Monday and Tuesday and the student government at the Columbia campus, the Missouri Students Association.

The association said in a letter Sunday to the system’s governing body that there had been “an increase in tension and inequality with no systemic support” since last year’s fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, which is about 120 miles east of Columbia.

Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, was shot and killed by a white police officer during a struggle, and his death helped spawn the “Black Lives Matter” movement rebuking police treatment of minorities.

The association said Wolfe heads a university leadership that “has undeniably failed us and the students that 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,” the group wrote.

Concerned Student 1950 has demanded, among other things, that Wolfe “acknowledge his white male privilege,” that he is immediately removed, and that the school adopt a mandatory racial-awareness program and hire more black faculty and staff.

The school’s undergraduate population is 79 percent white and eight percent black. The state is about 83 percent white and nearly 12 percent black.

Wolfe, 57, is a former software executive and Missouri business school graduate whose father taught at the university. He was hired as president in 2011, succeeding another former executive with no experience in academia.

Emily Likins,  John Wojcik and Associated Press contributed to this report.

Members of the anti-racism and black awareness group Concerned Student 1950 embrace during a protest in the Reynolds Alumni Center on the University of Missouri campus in Columbia, Mo.  |   Ellise Verheyen/Missourian via AP.