University of Missouri president Timothy Wolfe, a one-time championship high school quarterback, took a knee to avoid being sacked. Once the football team lined up against him, it was clear Wolfe’s time was running out, and he resigned today to avoid additional damage–to himself, certainly, but also, he said, to the university. Wolfe said that he hoped his resignation would speed healing and progress on combating racism on campus.
But there was obvious regret: “This is not the way change should come about,” he said, resignedly.
Thirty-two black football players came relatively late to this game, when they announced that they would not participate in any football activities until Wolfe was gone, but they weren’t the last. Their teammates endorsed the strike, as did their coach and the university’s athletic director. Hundreds of black alumni signed a statement of support. Even the faculty followed, endorsing a student strike that would have started this morning.
The charge against President Wolfe that stuck was insensitivity and failed leadership in addressing the racial climate on campus. The student body president had been subjected to racist insults, and someone drew a swastika in feces on a dorm bathroom–and this wasn’t the first time. Wolfe’s responses to events were slow and awkward at best.
Last week, Jonathan Butler, a graduate student in educational leadership and policy, announced that he was going on a hunger strike until Wolfe was gone. The effort generated more attention, and a growing pressure on students, faculty, and administrators to take a stance. The football players lined up prepared. The post-it decoration of a statue of Thomas Jefferson (at right) was another response.
The focus of the protests, however, was always on Timothy Wolfe. Indeed, an activist group’s demands called on him not only to resign, but first to hand-write a letter of apology acknowledging his “white male privilege,” and hold a press conference to read the letter. (Thankfully, Jonathan Butler has announced that the resignation is enough for him to start eating again.)
But to understand the last week, we need to pay attention to the larger context. President
Wolfe’s political skills and academic support were substantially weaker than we’d expect for the leader of a major research university. After getting his undergraduate degree at Mizzou, he forged a career in the computer industry. He was unemployed when he took the job, promising to deliver higher education at lower costs, after he’d learned about the university.
Wolfe had generated opposition through a number of unpopular reforms, including cutting health insurance for graduate students and kicking a Planned Parenthood office off campus. When he faltered in managing the fallout from racist incidents, he lacked a loyal basis of support for anything else elsewhere on campus. The football coach didn’t threaten the players’ scholarships; the faculty didn’t call for patience and dialogue with the administration. Like the Egyptian army responding to the protests at Tahrir Square, once the football team had lined up, there was little support left on the other side.
The apparently sudden emergence of opposition to President Wolfe’s tenure had been brewing for a long time, with student activists engaged in a number of less successful campaigns that set up this victory.
Trust that his successor will be far more committed to addressing the racial climate on campus–at least rhetorically.