Leadership & Governance

Thrust Into a National Debate on Race, 2 Missouri Chiefs Resign

November 10, 2015

Greg Kendall-Ball for The Chronicle
Students at the U. of Missouri at Columbia raise their hands during a rally on Monday after the resignations of the Missouri system’s president and the campus’s chancellor were announced.
Outrage over racial inequity at the University of Missouri came to a head on Monday, as the two most powerful men at the institution resigned under pressure from students, professors, deans, and football players threatening to boycott games.

Timothy M. Wolfe’s surrender from the system presidency marked a turning point in a long-simmering student-led protest movement, which has linked the shooting of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 with broader racial tensions at the university. Hours after Mr. Wolfe resigned, R. Bowen Loftin announced that he, too, would step down at year’s end as chancellor of the flagship campus, in Columbia.

The exodus in Missouri’s administration constituted a rare capitulation to student activism, often respected in higher education but seldom the catalyst for turnover at the top. But the two men, who are both white, were pulled into a broader national narrative, accused of complacency in the face of mounting concerns about numerous racially charged incidents at the flagship.

The groundwork for student activism there was laid during the unrest in Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb about 100 miles away, after a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. (The officer was not indicted.) For students, the incident brought to the fore longstanding concerns about racism on the campus, which they described as hostile to minorities.

"Our students, very bright, very thoughtful, started bringing our attention to that here," said Stephanie Shonekan, an associate professor and chair of the department of black studies. "Many of them are from St. Louis, and they felt no one was listening still."

5 Moments That Led to the Resignations

Both Timothy M. Wolfe and R. Bowen Loftin had resisted several calls to resign as the University of Missouri's president and as chancellor of its flagship campus, respectively. But it was the prolonged turmoil in Columbia, Mo., that played a crucial role in forcing them out. For those just catching up, here are five moments that paved the way for Monday's ousters:

1. Graduate students learn their health insurance won't be subsidized.

In August the university suddenly informed graduate students it would no longer subsidize their health insurance. The measure, which the institution defended as satisfying a provision of the Affordable Care Act, prompted protests and an apology from Mr. Loftin.

2. A student leader's account of a racist incident goes viral.

The recent outrage over racism in Columbia began outright in September, when the president of the Missouri Students Association, Payton Head, wrote in a Facebook post that he had been accosted on the campus by men who yelled a racist epithet at him out of a truck.

3. A homecoming parade gets tense.

Students protesting the racist incidents, united under the name Concerned Student 1950, surrounded Mr. Wolfe's car at a homecoming parade in October. When the students refused to move, they were dispersed by police officers. Throughout the incident, Mr. Wolfe stayed in the car, which then allegedly bumped at least one of the protesters as it drove away.

4. Jonathan Butler begins a hunger strike.

Mr. Butler, a graduate student and one of the protesters at the parade, began a hunger strike on November 2, saying he wouldn't eat until Mr. Wolfe resigned.

5. Football players threaten a boycott, and the coach backs them up.

On Saturday a group of Missouri football players said they would join Mr. Butler's protest, boycotting all football-related events until Mr. Wolfe was out of office. The next day, their coach, Gary Pinkel, tweeted a photo of the team together and said he stood behind the players.

—Andy Thomason
Tensions escalated this fall. In September, Payton Head, president of the Missouri Students Association, said that passengers in a pickup truck had shouted racial epithets at him. Last month a swastika drawn in feces was found on a dormitory bathroom wall.

Troubling as the incidents were, students said they were especially disappointed with what they saw as Mr. Wolfe’s lack of interest in their grievances.

In a fateful encounter with protesters at a homecoming parade in October, members of Concerned Student 1950, a group named for the year the university admitted its first black student, surrounded Mr. Wolfe’s car. The police dispersed the students, and Mr. Wolfe did not come out of his car to address them, which he later acknowledged fed perceptions that he did not care about their issues.

Strike and Boycott

At the center of the protest movement was a hunger strike by Jonathan Butler, a graduate student who said he was prepared to die if the president did not step down. Mr. Butler’s commitment to the cause inspired a boycott by members of the Tigers football team, instantly making Missouri’s crisis the subject of national news and shedding light on longstanding frustrations with the paucity of minority students, faculty members, and top administrators at many colleges and universities.

With a threat to boycott Saturday’s game against Brigham Young University, the Missouri football players applied a level of financial leverage to the protest movement unavailable to their fellow students. Forfeiting the game reportedly would have cost Missouri $1 million.

"The economic threat attached to the possibility of a boycotted football season was, for me, the only thing that brought about this resignation," said Frank Leon Roberts, a lecturer at New York University who offers a course this semester titled "Black Lives Matter: Race, Resistance, and Populist Protest."

"We could say it was the result of other pressures, but it was an economic threat," he said.

The football team’s action amounted to a work stoppage, thereby linking Missouri’s ensuing drama with the continuing legal arguments about whether such athletes should be entitled to unionize or receive compensation.

To some observers, the resignations demonstrated that athletes have outsize collective power, even absent formal bargaining rights. John Paul (Sonny) Vaccaro, a retired Adidas and Nike executive, described the events at Missouri as watershed. "This is what I’ve believed could happen for 30 years and what I think is the deepest fear for the NCAA — athletes control what happens on campus," Mr. Vaccaro told Yahoo Sports. "This is an unbelievable step forward for athletes."

The events at Missouri are evidence that the heightened national dialogue about race will increasingly pull in higher education, said Chad L. Williams, an associate professor of African and African-American studies at Brandeis University.

"College campuses see themselves as existing within a bubble, worlds unto themselves," said Mr. Williams, who has incorporated recent racially charged events into his teaching. "But you cannot divorce the issues that take place on college and university campuses from the broader context."

For too long, he said, college leaders have used "diversity" as a "buzzword" rather than acknowledging that a lack of minority representation makes students and employees of color feel marginalized or threatened. It remains to be seen whether Missouri will use this difficult moment to examine those issues seriously, Mr. Williams said.

"If this was the case of the president falling on the sword, trying to mitigate the crisis in the short term, that’s ultimately going to be insufficient," he said. "They need to address this as a systemic issue with a long history."

Complaints About the Chancellor

Jeff Roberson, AP Images
Timothy M. Wolfe, president of the U. of Missouri system, and R. Bowen Loftin, the flagship campus’s chancellor, are shown during a news conference last year. Both leaders had come under increasing pressure in recent weeks to resign.
Concerns about Mr. Loftin’s leadership expanded beyond his handling of race-related issues. Citing changes in federal health-care laws, the Columbia campus announced in August that it would cut health-care subsidies for graduate students. Amid protest, that move was delayed. Throughout the chancellor’s tenure, he was criticized as slow to act and for insufficiently consulting students and faculty members.

"There were definitely some complaints that the administration sometimes shot from the hip, and therefore they occasionally had to backtrack," said Ben Trachtenberg, chairman of the Missouri Faculty Council on University Policy.

Even as students turned their attention to Mr. Wolfe, who had become the designated lightning rod for racial unrest, administrators on the Columbia campus were working to have Mr. Loftin removed. On Monday the campus’s nine sitting deans wrote to the system’s Board of Curators, the governing board, calling for the "immediate dismissal" of the chancellor.

They cited "failed leadership" regarding graduate student health insurance, along with the "dismissal" of the dean of the medical school, whose resignation was announced in September after less than a year on the job. The deans accused Mr. Loftin of "creating a toxic environment through threat, fear, and intimidation."

Mr. Trachtenberg, an associate professor of law, said that high-profile calls for Mr. Wolfe’s ouster — from students, including the football players, as well as state lawmakers — may have obscured the fact, for a few days at least, that a lot of people on the campus were just as unhappy with Mr. Loftin.

"Many of the people who had been seeking the ouster of the chancellor never wavered," he said.

Mr. Loftin, who will move to a new role as director for research-facility development, will be replaced as chancellor temporarily by Henry (Hank) C. Foley, senior vice chancellor for research and graduate studies. An interim system president will be announced as soon as possible, the board said on Monday.

Kristofferson R. Culmer, chairman of the Forum on Graduate Rights’ steering committee and president of the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students, said he hoped the new administration would be "more proactive, instead of reactive" on race issues. He noted that Mr. Wolfe, in stepping down, had pleaded with the campus to "use this resignation to heal, not to hate." 

"What needs to happen is the willingness to have open dialogue," Mr. Culmer said. "That’s something that can happen quickly. Students are intelligent enough to know that no one is going to snap their fingers and get rid of racism."

Jack Stripling covers college leadership, particularly presidents and governing boards. Follow him on Twitter @jackstripling, or email him at jack.stripling@chronicle.com.