Both the president and chancellor of the University of Missouri resigned Monday in a wave of upheaval sparked by minority students’ anger over racial tensions on the Columbia campus and their dissatisfaction with the administration’s response.
President Tim Wolfe, who had been the main target of student protests, including a hunger strike by a graduate student and a threatened strike by members of the football squad, resigned effective immediately Monday morning with a speech marked by contrition.
“It is my belief we stopped listening to each other,” said Wolfe, who had led the four-campus system since 2012. “We have to respect each other enough to stop yelling at each other and start listening, and quit intimidating each other.”
On Monday afternoon, Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin announced he also would resign after the deans of nine MU departments called for his dismissal. After Jan. 1, Loftin will move to a role on the Columbia campus coordinating research for the university system.
The university Board of Curators named an interim chancellor, Hank Foley, and said an interim president would be announced soon. The board also announced a series of initiatives to deal with diversity issues, including creating a diversity officer and task force. Foley is the University of Missouri system's executive vice president for academic affairs, research and economic development.
Students celebrated after Wolfe’s resignation was announced, singing and dancing on the lawn near Traditions Plaza, where for the last week many had camped out in protest.
The cascading developments left the campus boiling, but the athletic department announced that the football team will resume practice Tuesday and will play Brigham Young University on Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium as scheduled.
Graduate student Jonathan Butler, who had emerged as a central figure in the protests, ended an eight-day hunger strike. He had vowed not to eat until Wolfe had resigned or was removed, and more students and faculty members on Sunday expressed support for his action.
A throng of students poured onto Traditions Plaza and cheered when Butler, who appeared weak and was helped by two people bracing his elbow, joined the celebrating demonstrators. Hundreds of students — black, white and international students — hooked arms and formed a human wall around him.
Butler, who ended his strike by eating some yogurt, briefly discussed his health.
“I do appreciate the prayers I received, the positive thoughts, the messages,” Butler said. “Thank you.”
He later asked people not to focus on the hunger strike. Instead, he said, “look at why did we have to get here in the first place … and why we had to fight the way that we did.
“After all the letters we’ve sent, all the in-person interactions, after all the forums we’ve attended, after all the tweets we’ve sent, telling the administration about our pain, it should not have taken this much,” Butler said. “It is disgusting and vile that we find ourselves in the place that we do.”
Trevor Casey, a journalism student from St. Louis, watched the celebratory scene from a campus walkway. “I’m super-impressed about how together students can be,” Casey said. “I have never seen so many people come together for a cause. I can’t explain the feeling I got inside when I saw them just join together and form that human circle. It proves that while racism is prevalent at the university, it is also being handled.”
Other students said they were happy to see Wolfe step down, and they felt it showed the administration was now paying attention to them.
“I think this is a step forward toward change,” said Keenya Frazier, a senior from Chicago. “It might not come at the pace that everyone wants, but it is coming.”
Pressure had mounted for Wolfe to step down over concerns about his handling of recent racial issues directed at black students on the Columbia campus.
The students say there has been an increase in “tension and inequality with no systemic support” since last year’s fatal shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.
The campus protests began after Payton Head, the African-American president of the Missouri Students Association, said in September that people in a passing pickup truck shouted racial slurs at him. Days before the university’s homecoming parade, members of a black student organization said slurs were hurled at them by an apparently drunken white student.
Students said Wolfe had not responded to a series of complaints of racial incidents including a swastika in feces smeared on a dormitory wall.
The protests reached a higher level Saturday night when black members of the Missouri football team announced they would not practice or play until Wolfe stepped down or was removed.
The Missouri Students Association, which represents undergraduates at the Columbia campus, called for Wolfe to step down in a letter sent Sunday night to the Board of Curators.
Wolfe, in his remarks Monday, made a point to address students, particularly members of the group Concerned Student 1950, graduate students and football players.
“What started to become clear was that frustration and anger were evident,” Wolfe said, referring to how he came to the decision to resign, adding that he took “full responsibility for inaction that has occurred.”
“It was a progression that I went through” Sunday, he said. Wolfe said he concluded that “something was systematically wrong on this campus, and I was identified as the problem. I believe that the best leaders do what is right.”
Wolfe added: “We got frustrated with each other and forced people like Jonathan Butler to take immediate action.”
But Wolfe also said that the events of recent days were not the correct way to inspire change on campus.
Wolfe came to Missouri with a background in business, including 20 years with IBM. Before becoming the university system’s 23rd president, Wolfe was a senior manager with the software firm Novell.
Donald Cupps, the chairman of the Board of Curators, thanked Wolfe and Loftin for their service.
“President Wolfe has instituted meaningful strategic planning and efficiencies to the university system and, by his action today, he is putting the interest of the University of Missouri ahead of himself,” Cupps said in a statement.
Cupps also apologized on behalf of the university for being “slow to respond to experiences that are unacceptable and offensive in our campus communities and in our society. Significant changes are required to move us forward. The board is committed to making those changes.”
Loftin, who previously was president of Texas A&M University, had been chancellor at MU since February 2014.
The deans’ letter calling for Loftin’s removal was signed by Daniel Clay, dean of the College of Education; Kristofer Hagglund, dean of the School of Health Professions; David Kurpius, dean of the School of Journalism; Judith Miller, dean of the Sinclair School of Nursing; Gary Myers, dean of the School of Law; Neil Olson, dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine; Michael O’Brien, dean of the College of Arts and Science; Thomas Payne, dean of the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources; and Barton Wechsler, dean of the Truman School of Public Affairs.
The deans said Loftin had failed as a leader in several instances, including the elimination and eventual reinstatement of health insurance for graduate assistants and the elimination of the position of vice chancellor for health sciences. The deans said Loftin created a “toxic environment through threat, fear and intimidation.”
The letters came less than a week after Department of English faculty members set a letter to Wolfe and the curators with a similar vote of no confidence in Loftin.
Loftin, in announcing his resignation, said, “I am joyful today because Jonathan Butler ended his hunger strike. I want to acknowledge his extraordinary courage and leadership in doing what he did.”
Hank Foley was appointed interim chancellor of the Columbia campus. He had been a senior vice chancellor for research and graduate studies and an executive vice president for academic affairs, research and economic development.
Foley said in a statement that his new role will be to “focus on inclusion and diversity.”
The football players’ threatened strike drew the support of head coach Gary Pinkel . If Missouri had been forced to cancel Saturday’s game, it would have had to pay BYU $1 million, according to the universities’ contract.
Pinkel and athletic director Mack Rhoades issued a statement Monday:
“The primary concern of our student-athletes, coaches and staff has been centered on the health of Jonathan Butler and working with campus leaders to find a resolution that would save a life.” the statement said. “We are hopeful we can begin a process of healing and understanding on our campus.”
Ian Simon, a senior safety and team captain, said the threatened strike was not about the football team.
“We just wanted to use our platform to take a stance for a fellow concerned student on an issue, especially being as though a fellow black man’s life was on the line,” Simon said.
There were reports early Monday that some undergraduates stayed home from classes after two student groups called for walkouts in solidarity with the protesters.
Brendan Merz, a senior heading to an economics class Monday, said the protests hadn’t affected him. Merz said the protests were “a little excessive.”
At “tent city,” where protesters camped out for seven days, members of Concerned Student 1950, the group of black students that organized the protest, tried to keep the media from photographing Butler as he ended his hunger strike.
Later the group refused to talk with media and told other students surrounding tent city not to comment to the media. Signs were posted around the protest site that said, “No media allowed.”
In a statement Monday, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat and MU alumnus, said she supported Wolfe’s decision to resign.
“This was the right decision to help the university turn the page and for its leaders to recommit to ending racism on campus,” McCaskill said.
Leo E. Morton, the chancellor of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, also issued a statement about Wolfe’s resignation.
“I respect Tim’s decision, and I hope that people throughout the university, and the community, take to heart his comments about the need for listening and healing,” Morton said.
The Star’s Lynn Horsley and the Columbia Daily Tribune contributed to this report.
The Board of Curators announced a series of measures to be implemented over the next 90 days to address the racial climate on all four University of Missouri campuses. The steps include:
▪ The appointment of a chief diversity, inclusion and equity officer.
▪ A full review of policies relating to staff and student conduct.
▪ Additional support for students, faculty and staff who have experienced “discrimination and disparate treatment.”
▪ Additional support will be provided to hire and retain a diverse faculty and staff.