Government & Politics

University of Missouri System president says he handled student protests poorly

University of Missouri System president Tim Wolfe apologized Friday for not responding to protests, which have included students camping out at Traditions Plaza on the Columbia campus.
University of Missouri System president Tim Wolfe apologized Friday for not responding to protests, which have included students camping out at Traditions Plaza on the Columbia campus. jledford@kcstar.com

University of Missouri System president Tim Wolfe on Friday apologized for not responding to student protests and acknowledged that racism does exist on the Columbia campus.

Wolfe’s apology came after he met Friday with Jonathan Butler, the graduate student who was in his fifth day of a hunger strike aimed at getting university administrators to take action against racism and intolerance on the campus.

“Racism does exist at our university, and it is unacceptable,” Wolfe said in a statement. “It is a long-standing, systemic problem which daily affects our family of students, faculty and staff. I am sorry this is the case.”

Butler could not be reached for comment.

The student began a hunger strike Monday, weeks after he and other members of a student activist group called Concerned Student 1950 blocked a car Wolfe was riding in during the homecoming parade to get the president’s attention about racism and intolerance at the school.

Police removed the protesters, and Wolfe did not address them. Later, in a letter to university leaders, Butler called for Wolfe’s ouster. The student said he would not eat until Wolfe was out or until he died of starvation.

Wolfe said he is “very concerned” about Butler’s health: “I regret my reaction at the MU homecoming parade when the Concerned Student 1950 group approached my car. I am sorry, and my apology is long overdue. My behavior seemed like I did not care. That was not my intention.”

Wolfe said the protest caught him off guard: “Nonetheless, had I gotten out of the car to acknowledge the students and talk with them, perhaps we wouldn’t be where we are today.

“I am asking us to move forward in addressing the racism that exists at our university — and it does exist.”

MU student body president Payton Head said a racial slur was yelled at him as he walked through campus. Later, students practicing for homecoming experienced a similar verbal attack.

Wolfe said Butler is continuing his hunger strike protesting the inequalities and obstacles faced by students, faculty and staff at the University of Missouri.

“His voice for social justice is important and powerful. He is being heard, and I am listening,” Wolfe said.

Earlier Friday, national and local Jewish groups along with a Missouri legislator joined with MU students in the protest against racism and intolerance.

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

Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal of University City tweeted Friday morning: “Dearest @_JonathanButler, there are people standing in solidarity w you. Yesterday, I fasted w you. Today, I will again. Peace be w/ you!”

Chappelle-Nadal in a telephone interview later said: “What this young man is fighting for are values I hold near and dear. What he is doing is not just for the campus at MU, it is for the entire state. Some of the things I’ve heard happening on that campus are a disgrace. I want him to know people are thinking about him. I want him to know I stand with him, not as a senator but as a human being.”

A group of 36 organizations opposing anti-Semitic behavior sent a letter Friday to MU chancellor R. Bowen Loftin, expressing disappointment in his lack of action against what they deem threats toward Jewish students.

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It was the group’s second letter asking Loftin to “speak out publicly and forcefully” against a particular anti-Semitic action on the campus. Last month, a swastika drawn in human feces was found in an MU dormitory.

Calling the act “despicable,” the latest letter said “a swastika is extremely threatening to Jewish students and will not be tolerated.”

In response to the group’s first letter, Loftin wrote back in an email: “While the students and staff in the residential community responded to this incident, the university did not immediately react to this latest incident in order to give law enforcement time to investigate and possibly identify the perpetrator(s). Their work continues.”

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Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, director of AMCHA, an anti-Semitism watch group, said: “We are not calling for anyone to be fired; we just want the University of Missouri administration to do the right thing.” AMCHA, one of the 36 groups that signed the letter to Loftin, is Hebrew for “your people.”

“Protecting the safety of students has to be primary and clearly not just Jewish students,” said Rossman-Benjamin, a lecturer at the University of California Santa Cruz. “Campus climate is deteriorating at a rapid rate. When African-American, LGBTQ, women and Jewish students are not safe, there is a problem and it needs to be fixed.”

She said Jewish student groups on campus, which also signed the letter, will not be satisfied with a behind-closed-doors meeting with the chancellor but want a public statement.

Rossman-Benjamin said: “We applaud Mr. Butler. What he is doing is shining a light on these problems and making the university have to face these campus climate issues.”

On his Twitter page Friday, Butler posted: “I woke up this morning w/ about the same amount of pain I did yesterday but a little more lightheaded. So I will be taking things very slow.

“Today marks the start of Day 5 of the #MizzouHungerStrike. It’s been 96+hrs & counting w/ no food & no public response yet from @umcurators.”

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

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