How Mizzou Football Sacked President Over Racism on Campus
Timothy Wolfe stepped down after a tepid response to attacks on blacks led to a hunger strike and mass rebellion on campus.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated throughout.
Mizzou football scored their greatest victory ever on Monday, effectively sacking the school’s president.
Tim Wolfe resigned as head of the University of Missouri following criticism of how he responded—or didn’t—to racist attacks on students over the past few months.
“The frustration and anger that I see is clear, real, and I don’t doubt it for a second,” Wolfe said. “Please, please, use this resignation to heal, not to hate, and let’s move on together for a brighter tomorrow.”
Mizzou’s black players had announced a strike the day before—joining scores of student activists led by a hunger striker who refused to eat until Wolfe left. In a parting shot to the protesters he defied as recently as Sunday, Wolfe said he shouldn't have been ousted like this.
“This is not, I repeat, not, how change should come about,” Wolfe said, adding that change comes from listening to others. “I take full responsibility for the inaction, and I take full responsibility for the frustration that has occurred.”
Football head coach Gary Pinkel might have delivered the fatal blow to Wolfe’s tenure, tweeting his support for the team’s wildcat strike on Sunday.
On Saturday, sophomore safety Anthony Sherrils met with Jonathan Butler, who went on hunger strike until Wolfe resigned. Then he and other players announced their solidarity with Butler.
“The athletes of color on the University of Missouri football team truly believe ‘Injustice Anywhere is a threat to Justice Everywhere,’” he tweeted.
“We will no longer participate in any football related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed due to his negligence toward marginalized students’ experiences,” Sherrils added in the post, which contained a photo of 32 black players.
The gambit came amid months of simmering racial tensions at the Columbia, Missouri, campus. Seventy-seven percent of students are white and 7 percent are black, while a large majority of the football team’s 84 scholarship football players are black. Minority students say they’ve been targeted with continuing slurs and harassment—and that the response from the predominantly white university has been tepid.
Last month, a swastika scribbled in human feces was found in the restroom of Gateway Hall, a dorm offering gender-neutral suites and bathrooms that is supposed to be a “‘gateway’ for the future of inclusive living,’” the Residence Halls Association president said.
That was the final straw for 25-year-old Butler, an African-American grad student aligned with "Concerned Student 1950," the student group leading protests at Mizzou. The group is named after the year the university first admitted black students.
“I’m in this because it’s that serious. We’re dealing with humanity here. And at this point, we can’t afford to continue to work with individuals who just don’t care for their constituents,” Butler told CNN.
“Regardless of what happens with my life, people are really starting these conversations that are necessary, and that’s what’s going to bring about the change in the long term,” he added.
Butler told The Washington Post last week that he was willing to die for the cause.
“I already feel like campus is an unlivable space, so it’s worth sacrificing something of this grave amount, because I’m already not wanted here. I’m already not treated like I’m a human,” he said.
Butler went eight days without food before ending his hunger strike minutes after Wolfe stepped down.
Coach Pinkel and athletics director Mack Rhoades said Sunday the team would resume activities as soon as Butler's hunger strike was over.
“Our focus right now is on the health of Jonathan Butler, the concerns of our student-athletes, and working with our community to address this serious issue,” they said.
Some players declined to speak to reporters waiting outside the athletics training center, with tight end Jason Reese reportedly saying, “We all made this decision as a team, to not talk to the media.”
Still, the players weren’t staying off social media. “Never thought I would be in place or time like this to actually make a difference,” running back Russell Hansbrough tweeted.
He later added, “There is no racial tension between the team and coaches. We are a FAMILY. Just to make that clear.”
Wide receiver Keyon Dilosa tweeted, “This is so much bigger than football for us #ConcernedStudent1950,” a hashtag referencing the student group leading protests at Mizzou.
For his part, university president Wolfe responded Sunday but ignored calls to resign.
“It is clear to all of us that change is needed, and we appreciate the thoughtfulness and passion which have gone into the sharing of concerns,” Wolfe said in a 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.”
“We want to find the best way to get everyone around the table and create the safe space for a meaningful conversation that promotes change. We will share next steps as soon as they are confirmed,” he added.
Graduate school workers called for a walkout on Monday and Tuesday, and some students had been camping out in tents on the campus quad, refusing to leave until Wolfe was gone.
The school’s racial strife made national headlines in September, when student body president Payton Head’s response to a racist attack went viral.
“Last night as I walking through campus, some guys riding on the back of a pickup truck decided that it would be okay to continuously scream NIGGER at me,” Head wrote on Sept. 12. “I really just want to know why my simple existence is such a threat to society. For those of you who wonder why I’m always talking about the importance of inclusion and respect, it’s because I’ve experienced moments like this multiple times at THIS university, making me not feel included here.
“Many of you are so privileged that you’ll never know what it feels like to be a hijab-wearing Muslim woman and be called a terrorist or a towel head,” Head continued. “You don’t have to think about being transgender and worrying about finding a restroom where you can go and not be targeted for violence…
“If you see violence like this and don’t say anything, you, yes YOU, are a part of the problem,” he said.
The shocking, hateful episodes on campus didn’t end there.
On Oct. 5, an inebriated white male student allegedly mounted the stage of a Legion of Black Collegians homecoming royalty court rehearsal and began spouting the N-word. The student was “moved from campus,” the Columbia Tribune reported.
Black student activists also say they faced harassment on Oct. 10, when they peacefully blocked the homecoming parade. They surrounded Wolfe’s car, but he refused to speak with them. Instead, the protesters claim, Wolfe’s vehicle hit one of their members.
Wolfe later apologized for his reaction during the parade, saying in a statement, “had I gotten out of the car to acknowledge the students and talk with them perhaps we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
Last week Friday, two female students said a drunken white man hurled a racial slur at them on a campus walkway. As a group of “four young Caucasian men” passed the women, one shouted, “You’re a n----r!”
“We walk around this campus knowing that on any given day, there will be another racial issue,” sophomore Alexis Ditaway tweeted of the incident. “We go to classes with our white peers knowing that not only will they never understand our struggles, but many of them will refuse to try. We go to a university where the only place many of us feel comfortable is in a Black Studies class.”
That day, activists cornered Wolfe again and apparently asked him about “systematic oppression.”
“I will give you an answer and I’m sure it will be a wrong answer,” Wolfe says in the video.
“What do you think systematic oppression is?” a woman is heard yelling.
Wolfe begins to respond, “Systematic oppression is because you don’t believe that you have the equal opportunity for success—” before he is cut off by the raucous crowd.
“Did you just blame us for systematic oppression, Tim Wolfe? Did you just blame black students?” a woman asks.
Butler, who also circulated the video, wrote of the incident: “This is his response to students AFTER sending out his lackluster, insincere, and extremely late apology letter to #ConcernedStudent1950…This is not the leadership the UM System needs. No excuse.”