University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe resigns amid racial strife

University of Missouri system president Tim Wolfe was at a board of curators meeting Monday shortly before he announced he would resign.
University of Missouri system president Tim Wolfe was at a board of curators meeting Monday shortly before he announced he would resign.

University of Missouri system president Tim Wolfe, bowing to mounting pressure, announced his resignation at a university board of curators meeting Monday morning.

“My motivation for this comes from love ... I love Columbia, where I grew up,” Wolfe said in addressing the media and others gathered in a small room in the university’s alumni center. He said his resignation was effective immediately.

“I know this will bring joy for some, anger for others,” Wolfe said.

Pressure had been mounting for him to step down over concerns about his handling of recent racial issues directed at black students on the Columbia campus. The tension prompted graduate student Jonathan Butler to start a hunger strike last Monday. Butler had vowed not to eat until Wolfe stepped down and more students and faculty members Sunday expressed support for his action.

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.

With Wolfe’s departure, the athletic department announced that the football team will resume practice Tuesday and will play BYU on Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium as scheduled.

MU football coach Gary Pinkel and athletic director Mack Rhoades issued this statement: "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. We are hopeful we can begin a process of healing and understanding on our campus."

Earlier Monday, the Missouri Students Association, which represents the 27,000 undergraduates at the system’s Columbia campus, called for Wolfe to step down in a letter sent to the Missouri System Board of Curators on Sunday night.

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.

Wolfe, in his remarks Monday, made a point to address students, particularly the Concerned Student 1950 group, graduate students and football players.

“The frustration and anger I see is clear and it is real,” Wolfe said. “I don’t doubt that.”

He thinks the problems occurred because “we stopped listening to each other. We got frustrated with each other and forced people like Jonathan Butler to take immediate action.”

Wolfe said he takes “full responsibility for this frustration. I take full responsibility for inaction that has occurred.”

Wolfe was named president of the four-campus university system in 2012. He came with a background in business, including 20 years with IBM. Before becoming Missouri’s 23rd president, Wolfe was a senior manager with the software firm Novell.

The university system board of curators met at 10 a.m. Monday and almost immediately went into a closed door executive session. However, the father of Butler is in Columbia today and is expected to talk to curators.

His son joined the celebrating demonstrators, tweeting that he had ended his hunger strike. Butler appeared weak and unsteady as two people helped him past a human chain and into a sea of celebrants. Many broke into dance at seeing him.

While Butler couldn’t be immediately reached by The Star for comment, he told CNN that the university still has a long way to go to make minority students feel welcome.

Butler says the university system’s governing board needs to listen to more minority faculty and student voices so that situations like this don’t happen again.

The football players’ 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.”

There were reports early Monday that some undergraduate students were attending class despite two student groups calling for walkouts in solidarity with the protesters who want Wolfe to resign.

Brendan Merz, a senior undergraduate heading to an economics class Monday, says the protests haven’t affected him. Merz says the protests are “a little excessive.”

The Steering Committee of the Forum on Graduate Rights and the Coalition of Graduate Workers called Sunday for walkouts of student workers.

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.

The protests at the campus began after Payton Head, the black student government president, said in September that people in a passing pickup truck shouted racial slurs at him. Days before the homecoming parade, members of a black student organization said slurs were hurled at them by an apparently drunken white student.

Also, a swastika drawn in feces was found recently in a dormitory bathroom.