University of Missouri president leaves over race complaints

After the resignation announcement, students and teachers in Columbia hugged and chanted.

Summer Ballentine, Jim Suhr, Associated Press | 11/9/2015, 2:57 p.m.
After the resignation announcement, students and teachers in Columbia hugged and chanted.
Tim Wolfe steps aside as president of the University of Missouri system. (Photo: CNN screenshot)

COLUMBIA, Mo. – The president of the University of Missouri system resigned Monday with the football team and others on campus in open revolt over what they saw as his indifference to racial tensions at the school.

President Tim Wolfe, a former business executive with no previous experience in academic leadership, took "full responsibility for the frustration" students expressed and said their complaints were "clear" and "real."

For months, black student groups had complained that Wolfe was unresponsive to racial slurs and other slights on the overwhelmingly white flagship campus of the state's four-college system. The complaints came to a head two days ago, when at least 30 black football players announced that they would not play until the president was gone. One student went on a weeklong hunger strike.

Wolfe's announcement came at the start of what had been expected to be a lengthy closed-door meeting of the school's governing board.

"This is not the way change comes about," he said, alluding to recent protests, in a halting statement that was simultaneously apologetic, clumsy and defiant. "We stopped listening to each other."

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

A poor audio feed for the one board member who was attending the meeting via conference call left Wolfe standing awkwardly at the podium for nearly three minutes after reading only one sentence.

In response to the race complaints, Wolfe had taken little action and made few public statements. As students leveled more grievances this fall, he was increasingly seen as aloof, out of touch and insensitive to their concerns. He soon became the protesters' main target.

In a statement issued Sunday, Wolfe acknowledged that "change is needed" and said the university was working to draw up a plan by April to promote diversity and tolerance. But by the end of that day, a campus sit-in had grown in size, graduate student groups planned walkouts and politicians began to weigh in.

After the resignation announcement, students and teachers in Columbia hugged and chanted.

Sophomore Katelyn Brown said she wasn't necessarily aware of chronic racism at the school, but she applauded the efforts of black students groups.

"I personally don't see it a lot, but I'm a middle-class white girl," she said. "I stand with the people experiencing this." She credited social media with propelling the protests, saying it "gives people a platform to unite."

Head football coach Gary Pinkel expressed solidarity with players on Twitter, posting a picture of the team and coaches locking arms. The tweet said: "The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players."

Pinkel and athletic director Mack Rhoades linked the return of the football players to the end of a hunger strike by a black graduate student named Jonathan Butler, who stopped eating Nov. 2 and vowed not to eat until Wolfe was gone.

After Wolfe's announcement, Butler said in a tweet that his strike was over. He appeared weak and unsteady as two people helped him into a sea of celebrants on campus. Many broke into dance at seeing him.