Missouri president Tim Wolfe resigns amid student criticism of handling of racial issues

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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- The president of the University of Missouri system stepped down Monday, and the flagship Columbia campus' chancellor announced he will "transition" into a different position at the end of year amid criticism of their handling of student complaints about race and discrimination.

President Tim Wolfe said his resignation was effective immediately. He made the announcement at the start of what had been expected to be a long, closed-door meeting of the school's governing board. He largely preempted that session in a halting statement that was simultaneously apologetic, clumsy and defiant.

"This is not the way change comes about," he said, alluding to recent protests. "We stopped listening to each other."

He urged students, faculty and staff to "use my resignation to heal and start talking again to make the changes necessary."

Hours later, the top administrator of the Columbia campus, Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin, announced he would step down at the end of the year and shift to leading research efforts.

The deans of nine university departments wrote to Wolfe and the university system's governing board on Monday calling for Loftin's removal and citing a "deep concern about the multitude of crises on our flagship campus.''

The University of Missouri senior vice chancellor for research and graduate studies will serve as interim chancellor for the Columbia campus after Loftin's resignation takes effect at the end of the year. Hank Foley said he wants "to make people feel included and make them feel that this is their campus.''

A poor audio feed for the one board member attending the meeting via conference call left Wolfe standing awkwardly at the podium for nearly three minutes after he read only the first sentence of his statement.

The race complaints came to a head over the weekend, when at least 30 black members of the football team announced they would not participate in team activities until Wolfe was gone.

For months, black student groups have complained of racial slurs and other slights on the overwhelmingly white flagship campus of the state's four-college system. Frustrations flared during the homecoming parade Oct. 10, when protesters blocked Wolfe's car, and he did not get out to talk to them. The protesters were removed by police.

Black members of the football team joined the outcry Saturday night. By Sunday, a campus sit-in had grown, graduate student groups planned walkouts and politicians began to weigh in.

Until Monday, Wolfe did not indicate he had any intention of stepping down. He agreed in a statement Sunday that "change is needed" and said the university was working to draw up a plan by April to promote diversity and tolerance.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said in a statement that Wolfe's resignation was"a necessary step toward healing and reconciliation on the University of Missouri campus."

"There is more work to do, and now the University of Missouri must move forward -- united by a commitment to excellence and respect and tolerance for all," Nixon said.

The Tigers' next game is Saturday against BYU at Arrowhead Stadium, the home of the NFL'sKansas City Chiefs. Canceling the game could have cost the school more than $1 million. Players have confirmed the game will be played as scheduled, and they'll practice Tuesday.

"The athletes of color on the University of Missouri football team truly believe 'Injustice Anywhere is a threat to Justice Everywhere,'" the players said in their statement Saturday. "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. WE ARE UNITED!!!!!"

Football coach Gary Pinkel expressed solidarity on Twitter and posted a picture of the players and coaches locking arms.

Pinkel addressed the media Monday afternoon.

BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said Monday that he is glad the game will be played and glad Mizzou is headed in the right direction.

"I think Missouri's been dealing with some really important but also difficult issues," Mendenhall said. "We're grateful that they're able to reach a resolution -- or a beginning of a resolution, might be more applicable to say. We look forward to preparing for the game at Arrowhead Stadium."

Practice and other team activities for Missouri were canceled Sunday. A statement issued by Pinkel and Missouri athletic director Mack Rhoades linked the return of the protesting football players to the end of a hunger strike by a black graduate student who began the effort Nov. 2 and has vowed to not eat until Wolfe is gone.

"Our focus right now is on the health of Jonathan Butler, the concerns of our student-athletes and working with our community to address this serious issue," the statement said.

Butler, appearing on CNN in the wake of Wolfe's resignation, said his strike is over.

"This is a great first step towards change," Butler said.

Former Missouri linebacker Michael Sam said he brought Butler water on Wednesday and noted how much more attention was put on the school in less than a week.

"There was nobody here [Wednesday]. Two tents and a reporter," Sam said. "Things change when sports gets involved."

The governing board said an interim system president would be named soon, and board members vowed Monday to work toward a "culture of respect.''

The board planned to appoint an officer to oversee diversity and equality at all four campuses. It also promised a full review of other policies, more support for victims of discrimination and a more diverse faculty.

Payton Head, the Missouri Students Association president, called those changes a step "in the right direction.''

"It's great to see that from the UM system," he said. "It's something that I honestly I didn't expect but had been hoping for for a long time."

The protests began after Head, who is black, said in September that people in a passing pickup truck shouted racial slurs at him. In early October, 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.

Many of the protests have been led by an organization called Concerned Student 1950, which gets its name from the year the university accepted its first black student. The organization's members besieged Wolfe's car at the parade, and they have been conducting a sit-in on a campus plaza since Nov. 2.

Two trucks flying Confederate flags drove past the site Sunday, a move many saw as an attempt at intimidation. At least 150 students -- a larger crowd than on previous days -- gathered at the plaza Sunday night to pray, sing and read Bible verses. Many students planned to camp there overnight, despite temperatures that had dropped into the upper-30s.

Also joining in the protest effort were two graduate student groups that called for walkouts Monday and Tuesday and the student government at the Columbia campus, the Missouri Students Association.

The association said Sunday in a letter to the system's governing body that there had been "an increase in tension and inequality with no systemic support" since last year's fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, which is about 120 miles east of Columbia.

Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, was shot and killed by a white police officer during a struggle, and his death helped spawn the Black Lives Matter movement rebuking police treatment of minorities.

The association said Wolfe heads a university leadership that "has undeniably failed us and the students that we represent."

"He has not only enabled a culture of racism since the start of his tenure in 2012, but blatantly ignored and disrespected the concerns of students," the group wrote.

Concerned Student 1950 has demanded, among other things, that Wolfe "acknowledge his white male privilege," that he be immediately removed and that the school adopt a mandatory racial-awareness program and hire more black faculty and staff.

One of the sit-in participants, Abigail Hollis, a black undergraduate, said the campus is "unhealthy and unsafe for us."

"The way white students are treated is in stark contrast to the way black students and other marginalized students are treated, and it's time to stop that," Hollis said. "It's 2015."

The school's undergraduate population is 79 percent white and 8 percent black. The state is about 83 percent white and nearly 12 percent black.

Wolfe, 57, is a former software executive and Missouri business school graduate whose father taught at the university. He was hired as president in 2011, succeeding another former business executive who lacked experience in academia.

Lawmakers and elected officials began to weigh in Sunday. The chairman of a Missouri House higher education committee, Republican Rep. Steve Cookson, said in a statement that Wolfe "can no longer effectively lead" and should leave his post.

Joining in calling for Wolfe's resignation was Assistant House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, the highest-ranking black member of that chamber.

Information from ESPN's Howard Bryant and The Associated Press was used in this report.

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