University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe resigns amid race row

Posted at 11:23 AM, Nov 09, 2015
and last updated 2015-11-09 11:57:51-05

(CNN) — Tim Wolfe, president of the University of Missouri System, is resigning from his post amid a controversy regarding race relations at the school, he announced in a Monday news conference.

Saying he takes “full responsibility for the inaction that has occurred,” he asked that the university community listen to each other’s problems and “stop intimidating each other.”

“This is not — I repeat, not — the way change should come about. Change comes from listening, learning, caring and conversation,” he said. “Use my resignation to heal and start talking again.”

His decision, he said, “came out of love, not hate,” and he urged the university to “focus on what we can change” in the future, not what’s happened in the past.

His decision came after black football players at the University of Missouri — with their coach’s support — threatened not to practice or play again until graduate student Jonathan Butler ended his hunger strike. Butler, who is protesting the state of race relations on the main campus and had demanded Wolfe’s removal, tweeted Monday morning, “My body is tired but my heart is strong. This fight for justice is necessary.”

He later tweeted that he had ended his hunger strike.

If the Tigers fail to take the field against the Brigham Young University Cougars at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium on Saturday, the team will be forced to pay a cancellation fee of $1 million, according to a copy of the contract published in The Kansas City Star earlier this year.

About 30 players made their thoughts known Saturday night in a tweet posted by Missouri’s Legion of Black Collegians.

“The athletes of color on the University of Missouri football team truly believe ‘Injustice Anywhere is a threat to Justice Everywhere,’ ” read the tweet. “We will no longer participate in any football related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed due to his negligence toward marginalized students’ experience.”

The players’ move is the latest salvo in a spiraling debate over the experiences of African-American students at Missouri, who have complained of inaction on the part of school leaders in dealing with racism on the overwhelmingly white Columbia campus.

Black student leaders have complained of students openly using racial slurs and other incidents. In August, someone used feces to draw a swastika, drawing condemnation from black and Jewish student organizations.

Butler started his hunger strike last week, demanding Wolfe’s removal. He wrote Missouri officials that “students are not able to achieve their full academic potential because of the inequalities and obstacles they face,” according to the Missourian newspaper in Columbia. “In each of these scenarios, Mr. Wolfe had ample opportunity to create policies and reform that could shift the culture of Mizzou in a positive direction, but in each scenario, he failed to do so.”

On Sunday, Butler accused the school’s leadership of not caring for the student body.

“I’m in this because it’s that serious. We’re dealing with humanity here. And at this point, we can’t afford to continue to work with individuals who just don’t care for their constituents,” he told CNN.

“Regardless of what happens with my life, people are really starting these conversations that are necessary and that’s what’s going to bring about the change in the long term,” Butler said.

It’s not clear what repercussions, if any, could come to the football players if they refuse to play in Missouri’s next football game against Brigham Young University on November 14. Some have called for the students to lose their scholarships.

The school’s athletics department said Saturday that it supports the right of student athletes to “tackle these challenging issues.”

Head football coach Gary Pinkel seemed to be more direct, tweeting a photo Sunday of dozens of white and black students standing arm in arm with the message, “The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players.”

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon insisted Friday that the issues must be addressed. Wolfe agreed, but he at first appeared unwilling to give in to demands that he resign, saying in a statement Sunday that he was “dedicated to ongoing dialogue to address these very complex, societal issues.”

“We are tired of dialogue! We want action,” the student group behind much of the protest, Concerned Student 1950, tweeted Friday.

The group’s name refers to the date African-American students were first admitted to the university.

The long-simmering discussion began to boil over this fall, when the African-American student body president spoke out about racism on campus, according to media reports.

Later, a group of African-American students complained that a school safety officer didn’t more aggressively pursue an apparently drunken white student who disrupted their gathering and used a racial slur in addressing them.

African-American students then disrupted the school’s homecoming parade on October 10, blocking Wolfe’s car in a protest calling for greater action on the part of administrators.

They accused Wolfe of looking on impassively and said his car struck one of the protesters. No one was injured, but protesters accused police of using excessive force to disperse protesters.

The top official at the Missouri campus, Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin, ordered mandatory sensitivity training for faculty and students, and Wolfe later apologized.

“Racism does exist at our university, and it is unacceptable,” he said.

African-American students said the gestures were insufficient and called for school officials to implement broader cultural sensitivity training, increase minority staffing and take other steps.

In his response Sunday, Wolfe said many of the student group’s demands were under consideration.

“It is clear to all of us that change is needed, and we appreciate the thoughtfulness and passion which have gone into the sharing of concerns,” his statement said. “My administration has been meeting around the clock and has been doing a tremendous amount of reflection on how to address these complex matters.”

The University of Missouri-Columbia has a population of 35,000 students, 17% of whom are minorities, the school says on its website.

Two graduate student groups called for walkouts at the university on Monday and Tuesday in solidarity with protesters.