This morning, University of Missouri system president Tim Wolfe stepped down, ending an eight-day hunger strike by graduate student Jonathan Butler aimed at Wolfe’s removal. The issue at hand was Wolfe’s lack of response to a recent spate of racist incidents on campus, and Butler’s protest had the support of Mizzou’s football team, which went on strike over the weekend with the support of head coach Gary Pinkel. This series of events may have left you with a lot of questions. We have answers for you:
The strike is a show of support for Concerned Student 1950 and Butler, who began his hunger strike last Monday. At the start of his hunger strike, Butler had this to say:
I will not consume any food or nutritional sustenance at the expense of my health until either Tim Wolfe is removed from office or my internal organs fail and my life is lost.
The Missouri football team joined Butler Saturday, saying they would not play until Wolfe was removed. They had Pinkel and the coaching staff behind them, too.
Concerned Student 1950 is a group that was formed on campus in response to racially-motivated incidents. (1950 refers to the year black students were first admitted to the University of Missouri.) The group demanded the removal of Tim Wolfe, whom they felt had not handled these incidents well, if at all.
On Sept. 12, Missouri Student Association president Payton Head was repeatedly called “nigger” as he walked through campus. On Oct. 5, the Legion of Black Collegians (the university’s black student government) were subjected to racial slurs in Traditions Plaza. On Oct. 10, seeking to draw more attention to an increasingly tense environment, the Concerned Student 1950 group stopped the car Wolfe was traveling in for the Homecoming parade and blocked the street for about 15 minutes. The protest was broken up by police. Oct. 24 brought what has widely been depicted as the breaking point: a swastika made of shit was drawn on the wall of a university dorm.
Those are the big points, according to the Columbia Missourian, but more stories of racism are not hard to find. Journalism professor Dr. Cynthia Frisby recently told NPR about how she was approached by a white man in a truck with a confederate flag on it who called her the n-word and gave her the finger. Journalism student Alexis G. Ditaway also shared an account of being followed by a group of men who recorded a Snapchat of her and a friend after saying to her “You’re a nigger.” Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times found more students who have experienced gutter racism while on campus:
Several black students have said some white students use the n-word or otherwise discriminated against them.
[Ayanna] Poole recalled how she was kicked out of a fraternity party her freshman year after a man used the n-word and said, “All you ... girls have to leave.”
Andrea Fulgiam, 21, a junior studying psychology and sociology, said when she sat down in a lecture class freshman year, the student next to her muttered, “I’m not about to sit next to this black girl.”
Fulgiam said a professor once told her she was at the university only because of affirmative action.
Parnell said when she transferred to the university last year, other black students warned her, “Don’t walk through Greektown,” the cluster of fraternities and sororities just off campus.
On Oct. 21, Concerned Student 1950 issued a list of eight demands, which included a formal apology from Wolfe and his immediate removal. They also called for mandatory racism awareness and inclusion training for all faculty, staff, and students, and for the percentage of black faculty and staff increase to 10 percent by the 2017-18 school year. The group met with Wolfe on Oct. 27, but did not reach any kind of agreement.
I spoke briefly with the executive editor of the Columbia Missourian Tom Warhover, who said of the university’s response over the past few months: “There have been several statements condemning hate speech, there have been committees formed [...], and there was a statement from [Wolfe] yesterday that enraged many people. There’s a report due out in April.”
From that statement:
My administration has been meeting around the clock and has been doing a tremendous amount of reflection on how to address these complex matters.
Clearly, we are open to listening to all sides, and are confident that we can come together to improve the student experience on our campuses.
Up until this morning, it was unclear whether Wolfe would step down.
Jonathan Butler began a hunger strike on November 2. He wrote on Facebook:
The revolting acts that are occurring at Mizzou are a result of a poisonous infestation of apathy that has been spawning from the University of Missouri system leadership. [...] Let it be known that I have no ill will or thoughts of harm toward Mr. Wolfe but I do have an urgency to make the campus I call home a more safe, welcoming, and inclusive environment for all identities and backgrounds. I am a firm believer that attending to the needs of marginalized/underrepresented students is worth the time, attention, and care of administration; our lived experiences are worth acknowledging and fighting for.
In an act of solidarity, the football team announced this weekend that they would strike along with Butler.
The football team throwing its support behind Concerned Student 1950 and Butler was certainly a big deal, but this story is about much more than just football.
Wolfe is gone because he was forced out through the unified efforts of stakeholders across the campus and the state. Faculty began a two-day walkout starting this morning; students have been camped out on Carnahan Quadrangle in support of the hunger strike and in favor of Wolfe’s removal since Nov. 2; black Mizzou alumni, as well as a number of other alumni groups, issued a statement of support for Concerned Student 1950; Senator Claire McCaskill urged the board of curators to act; and state lawmakers, from both parties, have called for Wolfe’s removal. Even Governor Jay Nixon issued a statement, saying the “concerns need to be addressed.”
The football team is just one component of this campaign, which has been gaining steam since mid-October. This is what it looks like when a broad coalition seeks to effect change, and it’s something that the University of Missouri campus has rarely seen.
“I mean, this has been a campus not prone to protest,” Warhover told me during our conversation. “It’s safe to say we haven’t seen this kind of voice, a unified voice in decades here. It’s all the more remarkable because it’s not a campus that really does this kind of thing.”