Government & Politics

University of Missouri student on a hunger strike to oust system president

More tents were added Thursday at Traditions Plaza on the University of Missouri campus after graduate student and activist Jonathan Butler began a hunger strike on Monday.
More tents were added Thursday at Traditions Plaza on the University of Missouri campus after graduate student and activist Jonathan Butler began a hunger strike on Monday.

University of Missouri officials are working to resolve a four-day hunger strike by a graduate student accusing them of failing to respond to racism and intolerance on the Columbia campus.

Jonathan Butler, a candidate for a master’s degree in education, began the hunger strike Monday and in a letter to the board of curators called for the ouster of system president Tim Wolfe.

Butler wrote that he would not eat again “until either Tim Wolfe is removed from office or my internal organs fail and my life is lost.”

A university spokesman said Wolfe spent time talking Thursday with Butler and that administrators have another meeting set with Butler to try to address his concerns.

“We all believe we must never cease to move against racism and intolerance,” said spokesman John Fougere.

Besides accusing the university of failing to respond to racial slurs on campus and anti-Semitic graffiti, Butler in his letter cited the abrupt removal of graduate student health care subsidies this summer and the end to university contracts with a Columbia Planned Parenthood clinic earlier this year.

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Those issues have been embroiling the campus since the start of the school year. Butler is drawing support from other students, who are camping out across from Jesse Hall and holding protest marches questioning the university’s leadership.

This week, members of the department of English also raised concerns, sending a letter to Wolfe expressing frustration with another university leader: the chancellor of the Columbia campus, R. Bowen Loftin.

The Columbia Tribune reported that 26 members voted that they have no confidence in Loftin’s leadership. No one voted that they have confidence in him, and two abstained.

In a letter to Wolfe and the curators, associate professor Samuel Cohen cited concerns with the treatment of graduate students, disrespect of shared governance and “failure to defend the University’s educational mission against outside political pressure.“

Fougere said Wolfe has talked with members of the Columbia community and leaders of the other three campuses — in Kansas City, St. Louis and Rolla — about “how to approach diversity and inclusion so we can put together best practices” that would change the campus climate some have called hostile and unwelcoming.

“The president wants to lead on this issue,” Fougere said. “He wants to be available to address the most difficult of issues, and this is the most difficult of issues. We are talking about an issue that is pervasive in our society.”

Contacted Thursday by The Star via email, Butler said he was unable to talk because he was “exhausted.”

Butler’s strike has sparked several other student-led protests on the campus.

Members of the black student group Concerned Student 1950, which was launched in September by Butler and 10 other students, have been camping out at Traditions Plaza, in the heart of the Columbia campus.

The group calls itself Concerned Student 1950 after the year MU admitted its first black graduate student, Gus T. Ridgel.

“We are a collective of student organizers,” said Ayanna Poole, a member and friend of Butler’s. The title, she said, is a statement. “Every single black student on the MU campus is Concerned Student 1950.”

Members said they want Wolfe gone because he has failed to act against racial attacks that targeted MU students. Earlier this year, a racial slur was yelled at MU student body president Payton Head as he walked through campus. And later, students practicing for homecoming experienced a similar verbal attack.

Concerned Student 1950 in a statement released Thursday said that less than a week ago, a swastika drawn in human feces was found in an MU dormitory.

Concerned Student said it had requested a meeting with the system president but got no response until after an act of nonviolent protest in which all 11 members blocked a car the president was riding in during the university homecoming parade. They were removed by police.

“We initiated that meeting, and he told us he had no intentions of meeting with us,” Poole said, adding that Concerned Student does not believe Wolfe understands its concerns.

She said when the group met with Loftin, “He listened. Tim Wolfe is our target.”

In a campuswide memo this week, Loftin said he has already started action to address the racial issue, “including creating the position of Vice Chancellor for Inclusion, Diversity and Equity, requiring training for all incoming students, committing to a campus climate survey, and requiring search committees to complete training aimed at diverse and inclusive hiring — all of these steps have been taken with the full support and endorsement of UM System President Tim Wolfe.”

University spokeswoman Mary Jo Banken said Loftin had not received a copy of the letter from the English instructors and was unaware of department criticism. She says Loftin is working to listen to concerns and continues to “work toward solutions for some of the issues we are currently challenged with.”

Board of curators chairman Don Cupps did not return messages left at his office Thursday. Curator John Phillips of Kansas City said he wasn’t surprised problems with intolerance had boiled up on the Columbia campus. He said he protested against similar issues when he was a student there in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and his daughter protested against them when she was an MU student in the 1980s.

“I think there is a small element on any campus that harbors hateful feeling against minority groups, not just race but foreign students and LGBT. This is a pretty good opportunity now for the campus to take a hard look.

“I have every confidence that Tim Wolfe will lead the board toward a position responsible to the current situation.”

Mará Rose Williams: 816-234-4419, @marawilliamskc