Tim Wolfe’s decision Monday to step down as president of the University of Missouri system was a necessary first step to end the turmoil on the Columbia campus. Now the Board of Curators, campus leaders and student protesters must act wisely if a fragile system is to heal from the crisis and emerge stronger.
A protest movement that started with fewer than a dozen black students and came to include hundreds of students, faculty and most members of the Mizzou football team had a rapid and dramatic impact.
One day after declining to step down, Wolfe did. Later Monday MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin also announced he would resign that post at the end of this year.
The chairman of the curators, Donald Cupps, issued a choked-up apology and announced a series of measures aimed at making all of the four campuses safer and more welcome for students of color. Those include the hiring of the system’s first diversity officer and a full review of all policies as they relate to staff and student conduct.
After decades during which black students complained of experiencing isolation and outright hostility, the protests in Columbia set the table for what could be, if handled properly, a long-overdue culture change at the University of Missouri.
With their high-profile actions, protesters at Mizzou put the nation’s education establishment on notice that empathy with minority students and the ability to capably handle race relations will be part of any campus leader’s job description.
A period of reflection and dialogue would now appear to be in order. Students have achieved a great deal with microphones, demonstrations and confrontations. But further progress will require respectful conversations without cameras and recording devices.
The person chosen to lead those conversations on behalf of the administration will be crucial. The eight-member Board of Curators is expected to soon name an interim system president to replace Wolfe. That person must already have the respect of minority students or possess the ability to gain their trust quickly.
Going forward, the curators’ choice for the new permanent system president must be someone more astute about student affairs and academia in general than Wolfe.
The Board of Curators has looked to corporate America to select its two most recent system presidents. Wolfe had risen through the ranks at IBM and was a senior executive at the software company Novell. His predecessor, Gary Forsee, had been CEO of Sprint, the telecommunications company.
Their business acumen brought some benefits to the system, particularly during Forsee’s tenure, when the university needed to drastically cut costs and find efficiencies.
But academia can be a treacherous terrain, and Wolfe had lost his footing. He waited too long to address racial problems that cropped up on campus this fall, and he never showed the empathy with black students or the urgency that the situation required.
Loftin came to Columbia in February 2014 with a long resume in academia, but he was a poor fit at MU. Faculty leaders have accused him of bungling matters involving benefits for graduate students and caving in to pressure from some Missouri lawmakers by revoking admitting privileges at the university’s hospital for a doctor who also works for Planned Parenthood.
On Monday, the deans of nine departments sent a letter to the curators requesting Loftin’s dismissal. They accused him of creating a “toxic environment through threat, fear and intimidation.”
The University of Missouri-Kansas City, fortunately, has been calmer than the Columbia flagship campus. But the leadership turnover at the system level could affect developments here, such as fundraising for a downtown campus for the Conservatory of Music and Dance. UMKC leadership sent out a well-crafted letter Monday calling for respectful discussions on campus about the events of the last few days.
Several Missouri politicians have weighed in on the situation over the past couple of days. Some state legislators of both parties called for Wolfe to leave, and some Republicans defended Loftin.
It is essential at this point that politicians back off and allow the curators to do their due diligence in selecting interim and permanent replacements for Wolfe. The new system president will hire a chancellor for the Columbia campus. Interference by legislators at this point will almost certainly turn out badly.
At the end of a tumultuous few days, students can be justly proud of the change they have achieved for the University of Missouri. Now more hard work lies ahead to achieve lasting results.