Student Movement Against Racism Forces University President to Resign

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Student Movement Against Racism Forces University President to Resign

Kanya D’Almeida

A student movement involving a hunger strike and an athletic boycott has forced Timothy Wolfe, president of the University of Missouri, to resign his post.

A student movement involving a hunger strike and an athletic boycott has forced Timothy Wolfe, president of the University of Missouri, to resign his post.

Wolfe’s announcement Monday before the university’s governing board in Columbia, the nexus of the four-campus college system, followed months of protest by students who had grown increasingly frustrated with the administration’s lackadaisical response to acts of racism on the campus, where the majority of students are white.

While grievances date back to an August walkout against cuts to graduate students’ health insurance, the situation escalated last Monday when 25-year-old Jonathan Butler launched a hunger strike, threatening to fast “until either Tim Wolfe is removed from office or my internal organs fail and my life is lost.”

Butler’s strike, which built on months of organizing by a group calling itself Concerned Student 1950—a reference to the year the university opened its doors to Black students—shook up the entire state, even prompting Gov. Jay Nixon (D) to release a statement on the need for “tolerance and inclusion” on campus.

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It was not until dozens of Black student athletes vowed to boycott the football team’s season, a move that would have cost the university $1 million in forfeiture fees if the team failed to turn up for Saturday’s game against Brigham Young University, that Wolfe stepped down from his presidency.

Wolfe, in departing the school, said goodbye to a base salary of $450,000, “as well as potential performance bonuses,” and a contract that would have seen him through to 2018, according to the New York Times.

Additional pressure came from his own faculty, many of whom had planned to stage a walkout Monday morning in solidarity with the student body.

Anger against the administration had grown for months over such issues as a lack of affordable housing, low wages, and a heavy burden on international students caused by the cancellation of health-care subsidies.

A string of racist attacks followed, including an incident in which someone yelled a racial slur at the president of the Missouri Students Association, who is Black. The Legion of Black Collegians reported being verbally assaulted last month while practicing for a play on campus.

Students reported on October 24 that someone had used feces to draw a swastika on the floors and wall of a residential bathroom.

The campus has been on edge since last year’s killing by police of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black resident of Ferguson, which sits two hours away from the university’s Columbia campus. The Times article noted that while many students hail from Ferguson, a predominantly Black city, only 8 percent of MU’s 27,654 undergraduates are Black.

Butler, in an interview with the Washington Post, said his activism was inspired by the protest wave that swept Ferguson in the aftermath of Brown’s killing, and the subsequent nationwide mobilizations against police brutality under the Black Lives Matter banner.

“I’m fighting for justice,” Butler told the Post. “It’s really plain and simple.”

Tensions on campus had flared in September when the MU Health Care medical staff voted to discontinue “refer and follow” privileges effective December 1. Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri defended the privileges in a statement following the vote.

“These privileges are increasingly used in hospitals across the country to allow physicians who seldom or never need to admit patients to a hospital the ability to … follow their patients’ progress if ever needed,” said Sheila Kostas, vice president of public affairs and communications for Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, reported the Maneater, the university’s student newspaper. “This is a continuation of the orchestrated attempt to restrict access to safe, legal abortion in Missouri and to the critical services Planned Parenthood has provided for nearly 100 years.”