How college football helped bring down Missouri’s president
Tim Wolfe, the embattled president of the University of Missouri System, resigned Monday after months of turmoil with faculty, students and his economically powerful football team in open revolt over his handling of racial tensions.
It was the decision over the weekend by the football team to boycott activities, which would have cost the school $1 million, that broke Wolfe’s hold on the university’s top job.
But an important hunger strike by a single graduate student helped mobilize public opinion, and a variety of protests by student groups and a threatened walkout by some faculty contributed to one of the most successful protests at a major university in recent years.
The University of Missouri was founded in 1839 in Columbia, Mo., as the first public university west of the Mississippi River and the first state university in the territory of the Louisiana Purchase. Missouri’s flagship campus is in Columbia, and there are three other campuses.
The undergraduate population is about 79% white and 17.1% minority. Blacks make up about 8% of the student body. Missouri’s population is about 83% white and less than 12% black.
Sitting on the crossroads of the West and the South, Missouri has a more conflicted history on race that some areas. During the Civil War, Missouri was split in sympathy between the Union and the Confederacy which accepted Missouri but never fully controlled it.
Racial issues continued to plague the state, most famously in August 2014, when a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, a northern suburb of St. Louis. The shooting and the decision by a grand jury not to charge officer Darren Wilson set off rioting and became the most visible outcome of more than a year of turmoil over the relations between minorities and police.
The Missouri Students Assn. in a letter on Sunday to the system’s governing body said there had been “an increase in tension and inequality with no systemic support” since Brown’s fatal shooting.
The Ferguson protests also helped push the #BlackLivesMatter hash tag in the social media universe, and that too had an impact in helping to spread the current uproar in Columbia. Last Friday, there were just a few hundred tweets about the University of Missouri. On Sunday, there were nearly 16,000. By Monday, after the resignation, it was up to about 60,000.
The protests at the university began early in the fall semester after Missouri’s student government president, who is black, said he was called a racial slur by the occupant of a passing pickup truck while walking on campus. Members of the Legion of Black Collegians, the leading voice for African Americans on campus, said racial slurs were directed at them by an unidentified person walking by. And a swastika drawn in feces was found recently in a dormitory bathroom.
Concerned Student 1950 member Ayanna Poole celebrates the resignation of University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe.(Morgan Lieberman / For The Times)
University of Missouri graduate student Jonathan Butler embraces his mother just moments after University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe announced his resignation. Butler held a hunger strike, saying he would not eat until Wolfe resigned.(Morgan Lieberman / For The Times)
University of Missouri graduate student Jonathan Butler celebrates the resignation of University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe with Ayanna Poole, a fellow member of Concerned Student 1950. Butler held a hunger strike, saying he would not eat until Wolfe resigned.(Morgan Lieberman / For The Times)
A student reacts to the resignation of University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe.(Morgan Lieberman / For The Times)
Students react to the resignation of University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe.(Morgan Lieberman / For The Times)
Protesters celebrate after the resignation resignation of Missouri University System President Tim Wolfe on the University of Missouri campus. Wolfe resigned after pressure from students and student athletes over his perceived insensitivity to racism on the university campus.(Brian Davidson / Getty Images)
Members of the student protest group Concerned Student 1950 hold hands at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Mo., after the announcement that System President Tim Wolfe would resign. The football team and others on campus had been in open revolt over his handling of racial tensions at the school.(Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)
Jonathan Butler, a graduate student who was on a hunger strike calling for the university president’s removal, addresses a crowd following the announcement that University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe would resign. Butler has ended his hunger strike.(Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)
University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe, at right, hugs university curator Marcy Graham after announcing his resignation during a Board of Curators meeting Monday at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Mo.
FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this caption misidentified Wolfe; he is at right, not center.
(Nick Schnelle / Associated Press)
Members of the Legion of Black Collegians and the Concerned Student 1950 supporters gather outside the Reynolds Alumni Center after an emotional protest on the University of Missouri campus in Columbia, Mo.(Ellise Verheyen / Associated Press)
A sign is posted where student protesters have put up tents on the University of Missouri campus Sunday in Columbia, Mo.(Allison Long / Associated Press)
Supporters raise their fists in solidarity during a rally at Traditions Plaza on the University of Missouri campus in Columbia, Mo., calling for the resignation of the University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe. The group organized the rally to draw attention to race relations on campus.(John Happel / Associated Press)
Members of the Concerned Student 1950 and the Legion of Black Collegians link arms during a protest in Mark Twain Dining Hall at the University of Missouri campus in Columbia, Mo.(Sarah Bell / AP)
Supporters of the group Concerned Student 1950 listen to speeches during a rally at Traditions Plaza on the University of Missouri campus in Columbia, Mo., calling for the resignation of the University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe.(John Happel / Associated Press)
University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe speaks Tuesday with members of Concerned Student 1950 senior Abigail Hollis, from left, senior DeShaunya Ware and junior Shelbey Parnell as they call for Wolfe’s resignation outside University Hall on the University of Missouri campus in Columbia, Mo.(Daniel Brenner / Associated Press)
During an Oct. 10 homecoming parade, black protesters blocked Wolfe’s car, and he did not get out and talk to them. The dissidents were eventually removed by police. 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.
A final step came on Saturday night when black members of the football team joined the outcry. The white players quickly backed them up, as did football coach Gary Pinkel. By Sunday, a campus sit-in had grown in size, graduate student groups planned walkouts and politicians began to weigh in.
Even though the football team is having a losing season so far, its economic power is large. According to data compiled by USA Today, Missouri’s athletic program generated $83.7 million in revenue last year, on $80.2 million in cost — a net of $3.5 million in profit.
There was also an immediate scheduling issue. The Missouri Tigers’ next game is Saturday against Brigham Young University at Arrowhead Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs. Cancellation could have cost the school a $1-million fine, according to a report in the Kansas City Star.
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