The governing body of the University of Missouri has called a special meeting for Monday after student protests over the way university leaders have responded to racial incidents escalated dramatically over the weekend when 32 black football players announced they will not participate in team activities until the president is removed.
Head coach Gary Pinkel expressed solidarity with his players on Twitter by posting a picture of the team and coaches locking arms. The tweet on Sunday read: “The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players. #ConcernedStudent1950 GP.”
The players did not say explicitly whether they would boycott the team's three remaining games this season. The Tigers' next game is Saturday, against BYU in Kansas City. Canceling it could cost the school millions. Missouri won the SEC East title in 2013 and 2014 but is unranked this year with a 4-5 record.
On Sunday night, two graduated student groups called for walkouts in support of the call for University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe to resign and the University of Missouri Board of Curators announced it will meet Monday at 10 a.m. on the system's Columbia campus. According to an agenda provided in the statement, part of the meeting will be an “executive session” closed to the public.
A university spokesman didn't immediately respond to questions about whether the group would address the status of Wolfe, who has been the target of protests by students.
Before the board announced its Monday meeting, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, who graduated from the university, said Sunday that the school's administration needed to act.
“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 in a statement.
Wolfe has given no indication he has any intention of stepping down, but said in a statement Sunday that “change is needed” and said the university was working on a “systemwide diversity and inclusion strategy,” which had already been scheduled for an April 2016 release. He said details of the plan would be provided in coming months and that the majority of demands from student activist groups were already included in that strategy.
The players' statement, issued Saturday night, aligns them with campus groups, including one called Concerned Student 1950, that have been protesting the way Wolfe has handled matters of race and discrimination on the overwhelmingly white, 35,000-student campus.
Student groups at the state's flagship university have complained that the use of racial slurs is prevalent on campus. Also, a swastika drawn in feces was found recently in a dormitory bathroom.
In addition, Jonathan Butler, a black graduate student, is nearly a week into a hunger strike to call attention to the issue. Wolfe met with Butler and student groups last week.
The statement from the football players included a photograph of 32 black men, including Butler.
The message read: “The athletes of color on the University of Missouri football team truly believe ‘Injustice Anywhere is a threat to Justice Everywhere.’ 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. WE ARE UNITED!!!!!”
Practice and other team activities were cancelled on Sunday, Pinkel and Missouri athletic director Mack Rhoades said in a joint statement. The statement linked the return of the protesting football players to the end of Butler's hunger strike.
“Our focus right now is on the health of Jonathan Butler, the concerns of our student-athletes and working with our community to address this serious issue,” the statement said.
Some members of the Concerned Student 1950 group — which draws its name from the year the university accepted its first black student — blocked Wolfe's car during the Oct. 10 homecoming parade in an attempt to speak with him. Wolfe did not get out of his car. The group has been conducting a sit-in on a campus plaza since last Monday.
On Friday, Wolfe said he regretted his reaction and that his behavior “seemed like I did not care.”
“I was caught off guard in that moment,” Wolfe said. But he added: “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 combating racism, injustice and intolerance.”
The Concerned Student 1950 group has demanded among other things that Wolfe “acknowledge his white male privilege,” that he be removed immediately, and that the school adopt a mandatory racial-awareness program and hire more black faculty and staff.
One of the sit-in participants, Abigail Hollis, a black undergraduate, said the campus is “unhealthy and unsafe for us.”
“The way white students are treated is in stark contrast to the way black students and other marginalized students are treated, and it's time to stop that,” Hollis said. “It's 2015.”
She said Wolfe has shown “much more of a lack of concern and much more of a lack of understanding for us” than other administrators.
On one point Sunday afternoon, two trucks flying Confederate flags drove past the sit-in, 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, a larger crowd than on previous days. Many planned to camp there overnight amid temperatures that had dropped into the upper 30s
The building racial tension and the turmoil over Wolfe are the latest upheavals at the university in recent months, following the suspension of graduate students' health care subsidies and an end to university contracts with a Planned Parenthood clinic that performs abortions.
The campus in Columbia is about 120 miles west of Ferguson, the St. Louis suburb where tensions erupted over the shooting death of unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown last year by a white police officer.
The school's undergraduate population is 79 percent white and 8 percent black. The Census Bureau shows about 83 percent of Missouri's population is white, and nearly 12 percent is black.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said in a statement Sunday, “Racism and intolerance have no place at the University of Missouri or anywhere in our state.”
“These concerns must be addressed to ensure the University of Missouri is a place where all students can pursue their dreams in an environment of respect, tolerance and inclusion,” he said.
Numerous state legislators on Sunday called for Wolfe to step down, Assistant House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, D-Kansas City sent a statement on behalf of the House Democratic Caucus calling for Wolfe's resignation.
“Racism has deep roots at the University of Missouri, which was built by slave labor, barred black students from admission until 1950 and hasn’t always proven welcoming to minority students since that time,” said the statement.
“Although history is immutable, a better future can be shaped if we are willing to take the difficult steps necessary to make it so.”
She added: “For the good of the UM System, President Wolfe needs to step down without delay, and the Board of Curators must immediately address the demands of minority students.”
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press