University of Missouri president, chancellor resign over racial turmoil

Tribune Newspapers

COLUMBIA, Mo. — The campus coup d'etat was over.

After two top University of Missouri system officials announced their resignations Monday following allegations they had not sufficiently addressed racial issues on campus, students danced on the quadrangle where activists had set up a tent city. The football team announced that it was ending its strike and would resume practicing for this weekend's football game.

At an outdoor amphitheater, hundreds of students chanted in the sun, "I ... am ... a … revolutionary!" Social media users around the world joined in, tweeting more than 100,000 times about the day's protest.

The uprising here was partly a ripple effect from last year's protests in Ferguson, Mo. It's also the most recent example of widespread soul-searching at universities across the nation after a string of racial incidents. Yale University saw similar mass protests over racist incidents in recent weeks.

The University of Oklahoma disbanded a fraternity chapter and expelled two members after a video surfaced of a racist chant in March. That month, University of Maryland, College Park held a forum and its president, Wallace D. Loh, hosted an hours-long session with concerned students on Twitter after a racist, sexist email by a student was posted online.

Patrick Ronk, the University of Maryland student body president, said the national conversation on race has forced universities to shine a "spotlight" on the issue and emphasize diversity.

"In the past three or four years there's been a huge push to highlight that students are from different backgrounds. We come from everywhere," said Ronk, 21, a government and politics student. "I've seen a huge push to try to be more inclusive and foster a better environment."

In Missouri, students paired bold physical protests with a social media megaphone to demand a renewed focus on racial inequality from their university administration.

"The frustration and anger that I see is clear, real, and I don't doubt it for a second," said university President Tim Wolfe as he resigned Monday morning at a meeting of the system's chancellors.

"I take full responsibility for this frustration and I take full responsibility for the inaction that has occurred," said Wolfe, a businessman who took charge of Missouri's public university system in 2012. "Use my resignation to heal and start talking again."

Several hours later, the University of Missouri's chancellor, R. Bowen Loftin, also announced that he would step down from his job leading the campus and take a different job at the university coordinating research efforts. He, too, had been criticized for not approaching racial problems more aggressively.

"We take our responsibility very seriously," board of curators chairman Donald L. Cupps told reporters. "The situations that have occurred in the past few moths have been eye-opening for us."

In Missouri this year, campus activism was stretched to unusual limits, owing in part to social media, and to many students' connections to the protests in Ferguson and a desire to bring the fight closer to home.

"A lot of Mizzou students traveled to Ferguson," and those who didn't, "wanted to stand up and make a change," said Ayanna Poole, a 22-year-old senior from Tyler, Texas, who is one of the founding members of the black campus activist group Concerned Student 1950. "I do believe it's been a domino effect."

The Missouri football team's strike, announced Saturday and endorsed by Coach Gary Pinkel, risked a loss to the university of $1 million if the team canceled its game this coming weekend.

Another key factor was a graduate student, Jonathan Butler, who went on a hunger strike Nov. 2 to demand the removal of the system president. Butler, wearing a shirt that said "I love my blackness and yours," addressed his fellow students at a campus amphitheater Monday.

"Please stop focusing on the fact of the Mizzou hunger strike itself," Butler pleaded to a quietly listening audience. Focus instead, he asked, on the "disgusting and vile" reasons why a hunger strike had been necessary in the first place.

A semester's worth of increasingly turbulent protest marked one of the most notable recent episodes of activism at the university system's flagship campus in Columbia. But episodes of racism on campus long preceded Wolfe's reign.

Cynthia Frisby, a journalism professor, wrote in the Missourian newspaper this week that in her 18 years at the university, "I have been called the n-word too many times to count."

In 2010, two white students scattered white cotton balls on the lawn of the campus' black culture center in what black students saw as a racist attack. They were convicted of littering.

One of the key differences since Wolfe's arrival as president in 2012 has been the advent of social media as a weapon for activism and racism alike.

University of Missouri students spotted an anonymous threat on social media app Yik Yak in December, after riots in Ferguson: "Let's burn down the black culture center & give them a taste of their own medicine."

Hundreds rallied on campus to protest the message.

This September, the president of the Missouri Students Association, Payton Head, who is black, said that he was walking through campus when a man in a pickup truck shouted a racial epithet at him.

Head confronted the issue in a short essay on Facebook.

"I've experienced moments like this multiple times at THIS university, making me not feel included here," Head said in a post that went viral, with other students echoing his account with versions of their own.

Colleges and universities have faced difficulties with the rising use of social media to both document alleged incidents of racism or violence and to organize protests against them, according to Barmak Nassirian, director of policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

"The availability of instant video, photo and texting generally means that a lot of things that might have remained a very local concern quickly take on a national following and national implications," he said.

That makes what is already a challenging job for a university president "that much more challenging," according to Nassirian. Campus leaders might not realize at first how an incident on campus can suddenly take on much wider implication.

University of Missouri administrators seemed to stumble in response to viral-ready incidents, and each stumble only made Wolfe a greater target.

When students asked him to define systematic oppression Friday night outside a fundraiser in Kansas City, Wolfe replied, "Systematic oppression is because you don't believe that you have the equal opportunity for success," upsetting protesters by implying oppression was a perception rather than a reality. The event was captured on video and, of course, was viewed and shared thousands of times.

When black protesters surrounded his car during a homecoming parade in mid-October, Wolfe sat silent instead of getting out or opening a dialogue.

The homecoming confrontation was the moment campus activist group Concerned Student 1950 was born, an allusion to the first year that the university accepted a black student.

Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell in Baltimore and Tribune Newspapers reporter Larry Gordon in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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