Amid tumult, University of Missouri taps interim system president

Posted at 5:38 PM, Nov 12, 2015

(CNN) — The University of Missouri System Board of Curators announced a former law professor, who had been working on diversity and inclusion efforts at the system’s main campus, as its interim president Thursday.

Michael Middleton, also the University of Missouri’s former deputy chancellor, said he was prepared to take the school’s reins and acknowledged the recent protests over the racial climate on campus: “The time has come for us to acknowledge and address our daunting challenges, and return to our relentless adherence to the University of Missouri’s mission to discover, disseminate, preserve and apply knowledge.”

The Board of Curators tapped Middleton at a closed-door meeting Wednesday night, according to the school. He will preside over a system that includes the school’s campus in Columbia, along with campuses in St. Louis and Kansas City, and the Missouri University of Science and Technology.

“Mike Middleton is the best person to lead the system during this critical period of transition, with 30 years of leadership experience on the MU campus and past service as a civil rights attorney,” Donald Cupps, chair of the University of Missouri’s Board of Curators, said in a statement

A 1968 graduate of the university and the third African-American to graduate from its law school, Middleton replaces Tim Wolfe, who resigned Monday amid protests over racially charged incidents at the school.

Concerned Student 1950, one of the primary organizations behind the campus protests, tweeted its approval following the announcement.

“We are excited for the new leadership under President Middleton!”

A former trial attorney who worked in the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and who also worked for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Department of Education, Middleton joined the university’s law faculty in 1985. In 1997, he was named interim vice provost for minority affairs and faculty development. He was named deputy chancellor in 1988, a role from which he retired in August.

“At the time of his appointment as interim president, he was serving in a part-time capacity at MU, directing efforts to improve inclusion, diversity and equity within campus activities,” a university statement said.

The school also announced it was handing its chancellor duties to interim Chancellor Hank Foley, effective immediately. His predecessor, R. Bowen Loftin, resigned along with Wolfe earlier this week amid student demands for a change in leadership.

Vandalism, arrests

His appointment was announced after a tumultuous day that saw someone just after midnight vandalized a sign outside the school’s black culture center.

It isn’t the first time the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center has been the target of a racist attack. In 2010, two white students received probation and community service after scattering cotton balls across the center’s lawn. Established in 1972 at the behest of the Legion of Black Collegians, the center was renamed in 2000 to honor civil rights pioneers Lloyd Gaines and Mary O’Fallon Oldham.

According to campus police, an unknown suspect spray-painted over part of the sign outside the center at about 12:48 a.m. Authorities are reviewing videotape in the area as part of the effort to determine the identity of the culprit, police said.

“Safety and security of our students is our top priority, and we are investigating all crimes as they are reported to us,” campus police Chief Doug Schwandt said. “We are receiving assistance from the Missouri State Highway Patrol and will continue to have an increased security presence on campus for the foreseeable future.”

Police have issued a $1,500 reward for any information leading to an arrest.

News of the vandalism came after police announced they had apprehended a second person suspected of making threats on social media.

A Northwest Missouri State University student was taken into custody around midday Wednesday at his residence hall, campus police said.

“University Police had received a report that the suspect made threats on Yik Yak, a social media application, to harm others,” a university statement said. Northwest Missouri State is in Maryville, about a 3½-hour drive from the MU campus in Columbia.

The developments came in the wake of protests at the University of Missouri that brought down two school officials.

Reports of racially charged threats have permeated social media. There was also a rumor the Ku Klux Klan had arrived on the Columbia campus, which turned out to be baseless.

Yik Yak is a social media app that allows users to share anonymous messages, or Yaks, with others in a 5-mile radius.

First arrest in alleged threats

The first arrest was logged by campus police at the University of Missouri. They said Hunter M. Park, 19, was arrested early Wednesday for allegedly posting threats on social media, including Yik Yak. He was initially “contacted” by police 90 miles away in Rolla.

Park, who is from Lake St. Louis and is not a Mizzou student, was transferred to the campus police department, charged with making a terrorist threat and transferred to Boone County Jail where he was held on a $4,500 bond, police said.

It was unclear how police homed in on the suspect. One of the app’s developers, Brooks Buffington, told CNNMoney earlier this year that while federal law prohibited the sharing of personal information, “in cases of imminent threat or harm or something like that, we work with law enforcement to do what we can.”

Even before the arrest was announced, campus police had said there was no imminent danger.

“Students need to be aware of what is going on, but right now there is no active threat on campus,” police spokesman Maj. Brian Weimer said.

“The campus is not on lockdown. There is heightened awareness due to the national attention we are getting, but again the reports you are seeing on social media are largely inaccurate.”

University officials toppled

African-American students at Missouri have long complained of an inadequate response by university leaders in dealing with racism on the overwhelmingly white Columbia campus.

Protesters clamored for change and for Wolfe to step down.

The protests got two major jolts when student leader Jonathan Butler launched a hunger strike and the Missouri Tigers football team said it would not play until Wolfe stepped down.

The pressure worked. Wolfe resigned Monday, followed hours later by Loftin.

“Our campus has experienced significant turbulence, and many within our community have suffered threats against their lives and humanity. These threats are reprehensible,” the school’s leadership said Wednesday.

“The process of making our campus as inclusive as it must be will not be easy. We have difficult conversations ahead, and we must all dedicate ourselves to learning together,” it read.

Protests spreading?

Marshall Allen, a member of the protest group Concerned Student 1950, said the change is just starting.

“This is just a beginning in dismantling systems of oppression in higher education, specifically the [MU] system,” Allen said.

If the aim is for Missou’s demonstrations to spread, it may be working. From Georgia Southern University and Howard University in the nation’s capital to the University of Denver and the University of Southern California, activists at schools across the nation have shared their support with Concerned Student 1950 and Missouri Students Association President Payton Head. (Head’s account of racism on campus helped spark the MU protests.)

Perhaps most notably, Yale University, the University of Southern California and the University of California-Los Angeles have all staged protests in response to incidents of racism, and at Ithaca College in New York, students staged a walkout Wednesday to demand the resignation of President Tom Rochon, who they claim has not responded adequately to incidents of racism on that campus.

“With University of Missouri’s president stepping down, we demand Rochon to do the same as it is vital to fight against both covert and overt racism in all places of education and empowerment,” said protest organizers in a statement.

How we got here

Protesters say racism at Mizzou — sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle — has simmered on campus for decades.

In September, Head — the student body president — vented on Facebook about bigotry and anti-homosexual and anti-transgender attitudes after people riding in the back of a pickup truck screamed racial slurs at him.

In October, someone used feces to draw a swastika on the wall of a residence hall.

Even on Tuesday night, some reported incidents of threats or intimidation on campus.

“Im shaking and crying these white guys are in a monster blue pick up truck no license plate circling our car we almost couldnt get out,” one student tweeted.

The University of Missouri’s Columbia campus has a population of 35,000 students. The undergraduate student body is about 79% white, and 8% African-American. The school’s faculty is also more than 70% white, with black representation of just over 3%, according to the university.