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Black administrator named interim president of University of Missouri

The University of Missouri’s board of chancellors on Thursday named a former federal civil rights attorney, one of the first black graduates of its law school, to serve as its interim system president as the institution seeks to quell racial turmoil after a week of death threats, racist vandalism and high-level resignations.

At a packed news conference to announce his appointment, Michael Middleton, 68, a retired longtime administrator at the university, spoke bluntly about “systemic racism” he saw on campus.

“It crossed my mind that my 30-year career here had been a total failure,” he said of watching protests this semester.

Middleton, who said he was not seeking the permanent job of president of the system’s four public universities, promised to work with black campus activists to confront issues surrounding racial inequality at the system’s flagship campus in Columbia.

President Tim Wolfe and the campus chancellor resigned on Monday.

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Asked by a reporter whether he’d ever felt marginalized because of his race when he was a student and then an administrator, Middleton replied, “Every day.”

“It’s so subtle,” he said. “I think women understand it. I think people with a sexual orientation [that is not straight] understand it. I think other people of color understand it.... It is just the feeling of not being heard, not being respected, and being placed on the margins of what’s happening in the world.”

He added: “I sympathize with white people who don’t understand. I don’t blame white people who don’t understand.” He said the way forward was to confront the nation’s history of racial discrimination — which he has long worked to combat.

Middleton served as an attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division and a director at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He later became a law professor at the university and was then deputy chancellor for 17 years before retiring this summer.

Activists with the group Concerned Student 1950, an allusion to the year the university admitted its first black student, praised the appointment of Middleton, who had previously met with members.

“We strongly support Deputy Chancellor Middleton as Interim President,” the group wrote on Twitter. “However we are still pushing for shared governance” — a reference to a wish for students, faculty and staff to have a greater say in the system’s operations.

The success of Concerned Student 1950 has prompted demonstrations at other campuses around the country, including at USC and UCLA on Thursday.

The social media app Yik Yak’s anonymous platform has been used to voice anti-protester sentiment at the University of Missouri, including death threats against black students on Tuesday. Police arrested a white student attending another college almost 100 miles away in connection with the threats.

Hunter Park, 19, was charged Thursday with making a terrorist threat, a felony that carries up to seven years in prison. A University of Missouri police official said Park was not in possession of any weapons.

Park, of Lake St. Louis, Mo., told a police officer that the Yik Yak threat — “I’m going to stand my ground tomorrow and shoot every black person I see” — was “pretty much” just intended to rattle black students, according to a probable cause statement from a university police officer.

One of Park’s alleged posts said “Some of you are alright. Don’t go to campus tomorrow.” Those words were reminiscent of posts the gunman at Umpqua Community College is believed to have made shortly before killing nine people at the Roseburg, Ore., school and then killing himself on Oct. 1, court documents said.

University of Missouri and Missouri University of Science and Technology police found Park in his dorm room in Rolla, Mo. Park admitted to an officer that the posts were “inappropriate,” the court documents said.

“I asked Hunter why he posted about shooting black students; he replied ‘I won’t get there ... so ... I don’t know,” University of Missouri Officer Dustin Heckmaster wrote. “I asked Hunter what he meant by the phrase ‘some of you are alright; don’t go to campus tomorrow.’ Hunter smiled and stated ‘I was quoting something.’ I asked if he was quoting the Umpqua shooting; he replied ‘mmhmm.’ I asked why he had quoted the phrase; Hunter replied ‘I don’t know I just ... deep interest.’”

Early Thursday, a vandal spray-painted over the word “black” on the sign for the university’s Black Culture Center, which is located near several dorms.

Freshman journalism student Isaac Jahns, 18, said he was walking home from a dining hall with three friends shortly before 1 a.m. when he heard someone scream near the culture center.

“I heard a male voice scream out, ‘You black … you’re not welcome here!’” said Jahns, who is white.

When Jahns turned and looked toward the culture center, he said he saw a black woman sprinting away from the site toward a parking garage. He didn’t know whether she had been the target of the racist comment.

The university’s black student government, the Legion of Black Collegians, responded defiantly Thursday.

“We’re not afraid. You clearly are,” the group tweeted. “Stay strong Mizzou.”

matt.pearce@latimes.com


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