Pressure to deal with racial issues at the University of Missouri exploded Sunday, primed by an unprecedented move by black football players to boycott future games and a weeklong hunger strike by a student.
Protesters are demanding the resignation of Tim Wolfe, president of the University of Missouri four-campus system, over what they say is his failure to address racial incidents directed at black students. On Sunday, he released a statement giving no indication he would step down.
Amid growing calls for Wolfe’s resignation, members of the university system’s board of curators traveled to the Columbia campus Sunday to deal with the situation. The board has scheduled a meeting for 10 a.m. Monday.
“This isn’t just a protest any more,” curator John Phillips said. “This is a shift. I have not given up on the local administration, but I think that all of us curators understand that the time has passed for them to reach a solution, and it is time for curators to be involved.”
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What had been a simmering student protest was jump-started into national headlines Saturday evening when black members of the Missouri football team announced they would not practice or play until Wolfe steps down or is removed.
Their action drew the support of head football coach Gary Pinkel and put the team’s upcoming game against Brigham Young University into jeopardy. If Missouri is forced to cancel the game scheduled for Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium, it would have to pay BYU $1 million, according to contractual terms.
On Sunday, Pinkel tweeted: “The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players.”
On Friday, Wolfe admitted to some missteps and apologized for his handling of sensitive issues regarding race on MU’s campus. Wolfe’s statement on Sunday said only that the administration is working to resolve problems on campus. He said the university would continue work on a systemwide diversity and inclusion strategy set to be unveiled next spring.
“In the meantime, I am dedicated to ongoing dialogue to address these very complex, societal issues as they affect our campus community,” Wolfe said.
While the action of the football team is the most visible manifestation of student frustration, a compelling piece of the protest centered on the hunger strike by graduate student Jonathan Butler.
Butler has vowed not to eat until Wolfe is removed or resigns, and more students and faculty members Sunday expressed support for his action.
“Mr. Butler has made it very clear that there is no other option to end this hunger strike,” Payton Head, student body president, said Sunday. “Mr. Wolfe needs to resign.”
Berkley Hudson, a journalism professor and president of the Faculty Council Committee on Race Relations, said, “The faculty may not agree with the life and death strategy, but we support Jonathan.”
The football players’ protest is in support of a larger student-led protest orchestrated by a collective of African-American student leaders calling themselves Concerned Student 1950. The group’s name refers to the year the first African-American graduate student was admitted to the university.
At the start of his hunger strike last Monday, Butler cited the university failing to respond to racial slurs on campus and anti-Semitic graffiti. He also mentioned the removal of graduate student health care subsidies this summer and the end to university contracts with a Columbia Planned Parenthood clinic earlier this year.
More students nationwide, spurred by the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., are speaking out about racial incidents.
Among the incidents in Columbia cited by protesters was one earlier this year when student president Head had a racial slur yelled at him as he walked on campus. Later, a group of black students practicing for homecoming experienced a similar verbal attack, and a swastika drawn in human feces was found in a campus dormitory.
Pinkel and Missouri Athletic Director Mack Rhoades, who is in his first full year at Missouri, released a statement Sunday saying they were focused on Butler’s health and “the concerns of our student-athletes and working with our community to address this serious issue.”
The Tigers football team gathered Sunday at the team’s training facility for a meeting in the wake of the announcement Saturday night that the team’s black players have gone on strike.
The team made its position known when sophomore safety Anthony Sherrils, a graduate of Hogan Prep in Kansas City, tweeted: “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’ experiences. WE ARE UNITED.”
Those words were accompanied by a picture of a group of black football players linked in arm in arm as a show of solidarity. Forty-one of the 58 players on Missouri’s offensive and defensive depth charts are black.
Football team members also gathered Sunday near Traditions Plaza, where members of Concerned Student 1950 have camped out in protest since Monday. None of the players would discuss the decision not to play.
A small tent city set up by students at Traditions Plaza doubled in size Sunday as more students joined the protest.
On Sunday afternoon, a pickup truck flying a Confederate battle flag drove past the site, demonstrating the kind of racial incident protesters say is all too common on campus.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon weighed in Sunday on the controversy.
“Racism and intolerance have no place at the University of Missouri or anywhere in our state,” he said. “Our colleges and universities must be havens of trust and understanding.”
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri alum, also issued a statement.
“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 address racism on campus,” she said. “I’m confident my university can and will do better in supporting an environment of tolerance and inclusion.”
Among those calling for Wolfe’s removal was Republican state Rep. Steve Cookson of Poplar Bluff.
“It has become clear that Mr. Wolfe can no longer effectively lead the University of Missouri system,” he said. “He should show leadership in his final official act and step aside; failing that, the University of Missouri system board of curators should remove him.”
Cookson called that a common-sense approach that, if not taken, will make it “incumbent for the governor and the General Assembly to come up with a plan to right the ship at this extremely important public asset.”
“We didn’t expect this much to happen,” said Abigail Hollis, one of 11 organizers of Concerned Student 1950. “We began this because we wanted to raise our voices. We did not know it was going to get to this point.”
But she said the group is prepared to continue its protest.
“We are out here to get Tim Wolfe removed and to have some deciding power in the next president,” Hollis said. “That is what we are out here for, and that is what we will stay here for.”
She said it was “beautiful” to see the members of the football team stand with them in the protest.
“They are fighting for the same thing that we are fighting for,” Hollis said.
Seven percent of the students at the 30,000-strong Columbia campus are black. On the campus Sunday, many white students were hesitant to discuss the ongoing tumult. Those those who did expressed support for the protests.
“I worry people just don’t care and a hunger strike won’t change anything,” said Erica Watkins, a freshman majoring in journalism. “Maybe now that the football players are out on strike something might happen.”
Kayra Heatly, a senior communications major, said she is trying to educate herself on the issues involved but calls the effort “amazing.”
“They’re trying to make a change on this campus,” Heatly said. “I’m really impressed and feel like so much today our generation doesn’t try to make an effort to do things like this and make an impact.”
The Star’s Jason Hancock, Tony Rizzo and Matt Campbell contributed to this report.
Key events at MU
Sept. 12: Missouri Students Association president Payton Head posted on Facebook about a racial slur directed at him. Head’s statement went viral.
Oct. 5: The Legion of Black Collegians shared a letter saying that at a rehearsal for a performance at Traditions Plaza, a man referenced members using racial slurs. MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin responded by acknowledging and condemning racism at MU.
Oct. 8: Loftin announced mandatory online diversity training for faculty.
Oct. 10: Members of Concerned Student 1950 protested during the MU homecoming parade, blocking a car carrying System President Tim Wolfe.
Oct. 21: Concerned Student 1950 demanded a formal apology from Wolfe and his removal from office.
Oct. 24: A swastika using human feces was drawn on a bathroom wall in MU’s Gateway Hall.
Oct. 27: Concerned Student 1950 met with Wolfe, but no issues were resolved.
Nov. 2: Jonathan Butler announced he would go on a hunger strike until Wolfe is removed from office. Students camped on Carnahan Quadrangle.
Nov. 3: Concerned Student 1950 and supporters met with Wolfe and Loftin. Concerned Student 1950 decided to boycott MU services until Wolfe is removed from office.
Nov. 5: Concerned Student 1950 held a demonstration on campus before the MU-Mississippi State football game. Students rescheduled a football game protest for Monday, citing security reasons.
Nov. 6: Wolfe issued an apology for his action and inaction during the homecoming protest. Protesters confronted Wolfe outside a fundraiser at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City.
Nov. 7: Concerned Student 1950 held a demonstration in front of prospective MU students.
Nov. 7: Black MU football players announced plans to boycott football-related activities.
Nov. 8: The MU football team united behind black athletes. Officials and others issued statements. Wolfe issued a statement expressing hope that all sides could get together and resolve the matter.
From The Columbia Missourian