University of Missouri president quits amid protests over campus racism

Tim Wolfe acknowledges the 'frustration and anger' that led to a boycott by black football players is 'real'

The president of University of Missouri resigned Monday amid criticism over his handling of complaints regarding racial bias and racist slurs on campus, acknowledging “the frustration and anger” that he saw among students “is real.”

Tim Wolfe said the termination of his position would be effective immediately. The announcement came at a special meeting of the university system's governing body, the Board of Curators. Hours later, Columbia campus Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin said he will step down at the end of the year to take another job at the school.

For months, black student groups have complained about racial slurs and intimidation within the system's overwhelmingly white flagship campus in Columbia. Their efforts got a boost over the weekend when more than 30 black football players announced they wouldn't participate in team activities until Wolfe was removed.

While announcing his departure, Wolfe told the university to “use my resignation to heal and start talking again.”

“This is not the way change comes about,” he said, alluding to recent protests. “We stopped listening to each other.”

Prior to his announcement, Wolfe gave no indication that he might step down, but he did agree in a statement Sunday that “change is needed” and said the university was working to draw up a plan by April to promote diversity and tolerance.

The university announced Monday that it would hire a “diversity, inclusion and equity” manager within the next 90 days, order a review of current practices, as well provide psychological support for victims of racism. The measures would be part of a “long-term strategy” aimed at eliminating harmful behavior on campus.

The university's football team suspended practice on Saturday and Sunday and black players had vowed not to return until Wolfe was fired or resigned, citing his poor handling of concerns over racism on campus.

“The athletes of color on the University of Missouri football team truly believe ‘Injustice Anywhere is a threat to Justice Everywhere,’” the players said in a statement prior to Monday's resignation. “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!!!!!”

Football coach Gary Pinkel expressed solidarity 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.”

The athletes had not said explicitly whether they would boycott the team's three remaining games this season. The Tigers' next game is Saturday against Brigham Young University at Arrowhead Stadium, the home of the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs. Dave Matter, a journalist with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, tweeted after Wolfe's resignation that the game would go ahead as scheduled. Football practice was to resume Tuesday. Canceling the game could have cost the school more than $1 million.

Shaun Harper, executive director for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania, said the black football players “understood that they have the power.”

“That is so rare,” said Harper, who authored a 2013 study on black male student-athletes and racial inequities in NCAA Division I sports. “Not in our modern history have we seen black students collectively flex their muscle in this way.”

In addition to the football team's action, one student, Jonathan Butler, held a week-long hunger strike protesting Wolfe’s tenure. In a Facebook post, Butler announced that his action had ended following Monday's development.

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. Its members encircled Wolfe's car at a homecoming parade in October, and they have been conducting a sit-in on a campus plaza since last Monday.

The protests began after Payton Head, 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.

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

Two trucks flying Confederate flags drove past the sit-in site on 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, a larger crowd than on previous days. Many planned to camp there overnight, despite temperatures that had dropped into the upper 30s.

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.

Head, the Missouri Students Association president, called changes announced by the university, a step “in the right direction.”

“It's great to see that from the UM system. It's something that I honestly I didn't expect but had been hoping for, for a long time,” he said.

Sophomore Katelyn Brown 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 offered “a platform to unite.”

A majority of the 35,000 students at the university in Columbia, about 125 miles west of St. Louis, is white. Racial tensions in Missouri flared last year when a white policeman in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown and a grand jury brought no charges against him. The shooting kindled nationwide debate about the treatment of blacks by law enforcement. 

Al Jazeera and wire services 

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