What Is Going On at the University of Missouri?

Update (11/9/2015, 12:06 p.m.): Timothy Wolfe announced on Monday he would resign. Read more here.

A University of Missouri at Columbia graduate student, Jonathan Butler, entered the fifth day of his hunger strike on Friday, giving his Twitter followers the following update:

Mr. Butler says he will not eat until the University of Missouri system’s president, Timothy M. Wolfe, resigns. Why? The president’s failure, Mr. Butler and his supporters say, to deal with a culture of racism on the Columbia campus. Anger over the issue has been brewing for months, and has recently spawned an organized movement that calls itself Concerned Student 1950 — which refers to the year the university admitted its first black student.

That outcry followed other controversies that have tested the campus’s morale and leadership in recent months, most notably over graduate students’ access to health insurance and the university’s relationship with Planned Parenthood.

‘Racism DOES have a place here, and it’s quite comfortable’

One night in September, Payton Head, the university’s student-body president, says he was walking on the campus when he heard the N-word screamed at him from inside a pickup truck that was driving by. “I really just want to know why my simple existence is such a threat to society,” Mr. Head wrote in a Facebook post that went viral. “For those of you who wonder why I’m always talking about the importance of inclusion and respect, it’s because I’ve experienced moments like this multiple times at THIS university, making me not feel included here.”

Less than a month later, members of the university’s Legion of Black Collegians said they were accosted on the campus by a man shouting racial slurs. That incident and others prompted condemnations from the campus’s chancellor, R. Bowen Loftin, who also announced that, starting in January, all students would be required to undergo diversity training.

Students’ demands for change continued. On October 20, students uniting around the name Concerned Student 1950 presented a list of demands to Mr. Loftin and Mr. Wolfe, which included a request that the president be removed.

Much of the tension has been exacerbated by racist messages on Yik Yak, the location-based, anonymous messaging app. Mr. Head tweeted screenshots of such messages on Thursday:

A back and forth ensued between the student-body president and the chancellor:

Mr. Wolfe responded to Mr. Butler’s protest by saying that he is concerned about the graduate student’s health, and that he wants to have more meetings with the Concerned Student 1950 group.

Mr. Wolfe released another statement on Friday, saying he had met with Mr. Butler again, and offering what he said was a “long overdue” apology for an incident that occurred at a homecoming parade in October. Members of Concerned Student 1950 surrounded Mr. Wolfe’s car at the parade before police intervened. Some observers said Mr. Wolfe’s car bumped a few of the protesters as it drove away.

“My behavior seemed like I did not care,” Mr. Wolfe wrote Friday of the incident. “That was not my intention. I was caught off guard in that moment. Nonetheless, had I gotten out of the car to acknowledge the students and talk with them perhaps we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

Supporters of Mr. Butler were not satisfied with Mr. Wolfe’s apology, taking to Twitter in protest:

The turmoil intensified on Saturday night, when the Legion of Black Collegians tweeted out a statement asserting that “athletes of color” on the Missouri football team would “no longer participate in any football related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed due to his negligence toward marginalized students’ experiences.”

The administration responded by distributing this statement:

Other controversies

The uproar over racism followed other flare-ups. In August the university suddenly announced it would discontinue its subsidies for graduate students’ health care, saying that they violated a provision of the Affordable Care Act. Protests ensued, and Mr. Loftin backtracked, apologizing for the short notice and saying graduate students’ insurance would be subsidized for the foreseeable future.

State politics have also been a thorn in the side of the university’s leadership. Amid intense scrutiny from Republican state lawmakers, the university in the fall effectively barred a Planned Parenthood doctor in Columbia from performing abortions. It also canceled 10 agreements it had for students to gain experience at Planned Parenthood clinics, saying they were no longer being used.

Those developments prompted protests on the campus and criticism from Democrats (and even speculation that the dustup would cost Mr. Loftin his job). The university announced last month that it would sign three new contracts with Planned Parenthood.

And in September the Missouri legislature enacted a law prohibiting students who had entered the country illegally, typically those brought to the United States as young children, from being eligible for a scholarship that would let them avoid high tuition rates. A group of such students has sued the university and others in response.

The many issues seem to be straining the campus’s confidence in its chancellor. On Wednesday the university’s English department voted no confidence in Mr. Loftin, citing the university’s response to “outside political pressure,” among other things.

“Campus morale among faculty, staff, and students is at a low point,” the department wrote.

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