This morning, students will head to classes as they have always done. The football team will take to the field to prep for their game against Brigham Young University next weekend.
But something is very different at the University of Missouri campus.
Students on Tuesday woke up to what protesters call a small but important victory: a weeks-long protest movement that ousted both the university president and the school’s chancellor.
African-American students at Missouri have long complained of mealymouthed response by school leaders in dealing with racism on the overwhelmingly white Columbia campus. Black student leaders have conveyed their displeasure over students openly using racial slurs and other incidents.
Things reached a critical mass Monday when university system President Tim Wolfe stepped down, followed shortly afterward by Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin.
“This is just a beginning in dismantling systems of oppression in higher education, specifically the UM system,” Marshall Allen, a member of the protest group Concerned Student 1950, said.
The speed of Wolfe’s resignation shocked many. As late as Sunday, Wolfe didn’t sound like a man who planned to leave his job, putting out a statement expressing a desire to have an “ongoing dialogue to address these very complex, societal issues.”
But the tide had already turned against him Saturday night, when about 30 black members of the Missouri Tigers football team declared in a tweet that they wouldn’t play until Wolfe was gone. By Sunday, more members of the team and head coach Gary Pinkel publicly backed the players and the media started paying attention.
By Monday morning student groups were calling for walkouts and some faculty offered protesting students their support. The calls for his resignation grew louder.
So Wolfe — who had presided over the university system, which includes the main University of Missouri campus in Columbia, along with the University of Missouri-St. Louis, University of Missouri-Kansas City and Missouri University of Science and Technology — stepped down, saying he took “full responsibility for the inaction that has occurred” and urged the university community listen to each other’s problems.
“It is my belief we stopped listening to each other; we didn’t respond or react,” he said. “Use my resignation to heal and start talking again.”
Students, faculty and staff converged on the Carnahan Quad following Wolfe’s announcement. There, they linked arms and swayed side to side, singing, “We Shall Overcome.”
Though the protesting students and some faculty say racial problems on campus go back decades, the current crisis took flight back in September, when Student Government President Payton Head took to Facebook to complain about bigotry, anti-homosexual and anti-transgender attitudes at the school after people riding in the back of a pickup truck screamed racial slurs at him.
“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,” he wrote.
In early October, a drunken white student disrupted the Legion of Black Collegians, an African American student group, while the group prepped for homecoming and used a racial slur when he was asked to leave.
Later that month, Concerned Student 1950 — a student group named for the year African-American students were first admitted to the university — issued a list of demands, including an apology from Wolfe, his removal from office and a more comprehensive racial awareness and inclusion curriculum overseen by minority students and faculty.
Graduate student Johnathan Butler felt so strongly about what was happening on campus that he stopped eating. Early last week he launched a hunger strike, vowing to keep it up until Wolfe stepped down. After Wolfe’s announcement, Butler ended his hunger strike and tweeted “More change is to come!! #TheStruggleContinues.”
“A lot of people know how corrupt the system is and they thought I was going to die,” he said Monday after Wolfe’s resignation. “From day one, from the moment I made my announcement people thought I was a dead man walking.”
A statement from Missouri athletic director Mack Rhoades and head football coach Gary Pinkel released after Wolfe’s announcement said football activities would resume Tuesday. The two men addressed the media Monday afternoon.
“There’s no playbook. There’s no script for what all of us have been dealing with. And I think, certainly, it’s been also a great learning experience for everyone involved,” said Rhoades.
“As we move forward, it’s paramount as a campus and a community that this not divide us, but rather bring us together to listen, to grow, to understand and to create positive change,” the athletic director said.
If the Tigers had failed to take the field Saturday against the Brigham Young University Cougars at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Chiefs, the team would have been forced to pay a cancellation fee of $1 million, according to a copy of the contract published in The Kansas City Star earlier this year.
“Our team’s excited about getting going again and playing, and we’re looking forward to our game against BYU this weekend,” Pinkel told reporters, saying he got involved because he supports his players and because Butler’s life was “on the line.”
“My support of my players had nothing to do with anyone losing their job. With something like this, football became secondary,” Pinkel said. “I just know my players were suffering and they felt awful, and again, I’m like their Dad, and I’m going to help them in any way I can.”
The University of Missouri’s Columbia campus has a population of 35,000 students. The undergraduate student body is about 79% white, while African-Americans make up roughly 8% of undergraduates. The school’s faculty is also more 70% white with black representation of just over 3%, according to the university.
CNN’s Eliott C. McLaughlin, Michael Pearson, Mariano Castillo, Joe Sutton and Polo Sandoval contributed to this report.
By Doug Criss