COLUMBIA, Mo. (Reuters) - The University of Missouri’s president stepped down on Monday after protests by the school’s football team and other students over what they saw as his soft handling of reports of racial abuse on campus.
Tim Wolfe’s high-profile resignation was the latest shock to the state of Missouri, and the United States at large, which has been roiled for more than a year by racial tensions after police shot and killed an unarmed young black man in the state.
Unrest at the university, widely known as “Mizzou,” started on Sept. 12 when Payton Head, president of the Missouri Students Association, said on his Facebook page that he was repeatedly racially abused on campus by someone riding in a pickup truck.
His post went viral, and the lack of any strong reaction by Wolfe led to demonstrations at the school’s homecoming parade the following month, when protesters blocked the university president’s car, according to local news reports.
Later that month, a swastika drawn in human feces was found in a university dorm building, according to the Residence Halls Association.
Protests reached a critical point this weekend when the university’s black football players refused to practice or play until Wolfe stepped down, and some teachers and students threatened to walk out of class.
In a televised news conference on Monday held to announce his resignation, an emotional Wolfe said, ”I take full responsibility for this frustration and I take full responsibility for the inaction that has occurred.”
“My decision to resign comes out of love, not hate,” he added, quoting passages from the Bible. ”Please, please use this resignation to heal, not to hate.”
Wolfe, a former software executive who joined the university in 2012, is the 23rd president of the four-campus system. As a state school, it receives public funding. Up until Monday, Wolfe had shown no inclination to resign, although he had acknowledged change was needed and had planned a new “diversity and inclusion strategy” to be released next April.
The university’s board also issued an apology on Monday and said that Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin would relinquish that role and take up the new job of director for research facility development on Jan. 1.
“To those who have suffered, I apologize on behalf of the university for being slow to respond to experiences that are unacceptable and offensive in our campus communities and in our society,” said Donald Cupps, chair of the University of Missouri Board of Curators, in a statement.
Cupps said the university would create the role of Chief Diversity, Inclusion and Equity Officer and start a full review of the school’s policies on staff and student conduct within the next three months.
The football team, known as the Tigers, suspended practice on Saturday and Sunday, and more than 30 black players had vowed not to return until Wolfe resigned or was fired.
That would have been a financial hit to the university, which, under its contract, would have had to pay $1 million to next weekend’s opponents, Brigham Young University, if the Tigers failed to play.
Missouri’s athletics department said on Twitter that football activities would resume on Tuesday in preparation for Saturday’s game.
In addition to the team’s action, student Jonathan Butler held a weeklong hunger strike, which he ended on Monday.
“It should not have taken this much, and it is disgusting and vile that we find ourselves in the place that we do,” Butler told reporters on campus after Wolfe announced his resignation.
Protests on campus had been led by a group called ConcernedStudent1950, which says black students have endured racial slurs and believes white students benefit from favoritism in many aspects of campus life.
The group, which takes its name from the year the university first admitted black students, on Monday demanded an immediate meeting with the university’s faculty council, Board of Curators and the governor of Missouri to discuss shared governance of the school.
“While today may seem bright to some, this is just a beginning in dismantling systems of oppression in higher education, specifically the UM system,” Marshall Allen, a member of the group, told more than 500 people gathered on campus.
“This was the right decision to help the university turn the page, and for its leaders to recommit to ending racism on campus,” U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, a Democrat and a graduate of the school, said in an emailed statement.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, also a Democrat, welcomed the move.
“Tim Wolfe’s resignation was a necessary step toward healing and reconciliation on the University of Missouri campus, and I appreciate his decision to do so,” Nixon said in a statement.
A majority of the approximately 35,000 students at the university in Columbia, about 125 miles (200 km) west of St. Louis, is white.
Total enrollment at the university is 35,488, according to the school’s website, including undergraduate, graduate and professional students. Last year, in the school’s most recent figures available, about 7 percent of students were black.
Racial tensions in Missouri flared last year when a white policeman in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson killed an unarmed young black man and a grand jury brought no charges against the officer. The shooting kindled nationwide soul-searching and protests about the treatment of blacks by law enforcement.
Recent problems at the university started with the shooting in Ferguson, Justin Honore, a 20-year old sophomore from Dallas, told Reuters amid celebrations on campus.
“There was a lot of racial tension around the Ferguson issue. A lot of the student body are from the St. Louis, Ferguson area,” said Honore, who is black. “When a lot of that was going down, they felt very hurt and judged that people were jumping to conclusions about their community, about who they were.”
Racial tensions have dogged other American schools as well recently.
Yale University saw small-scale protests last week after a fraternity turned away black guests at a Halloween party, saying, according to reports at the time, that only white women would be admitted.
Anger over the alleged incident led to a series of meetings between students and top administrators, including Peter Salovey, president of the Ivy League school in New Haven, Connecticut. Salovey called for “greater inclusion, healing, mutual respect and understanding.”
On Monday, a crowd of a few hundred people held what they called a “march of resilience” on Yale’s campus on Monday.
In late October, the University of Louisville issued an apology after an outcry over a photograph showing school staff, including school President James Ramsey, during a party donning sombreros and other items associated with Hispanic culture. Ramsey’s office subsequently issued a statement saying the school would initiate diversity training immediately.
Reporting by Anthony Romano, Shawn Shinneman and Lakshna Mehta in Columbia, Missouri, Kevin Murphy in Kansas City and Ben Klayman in Detroit; Additional reporting by Scott Malone in Boston, Katie Reilly, Laila Kearney and Angela Moon in New York; Writing by Bill Rigby; Editing by Bernadette Baum, Jonathan Oatis and Andrew Hay