How University of Missouri students fed up with racism on campus forced the school's president to resign

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

On Monday, University of Missouri system president Tim Wolfe resigned after admitting he had failed to address students' concerns about pervasive racism taking root on campus.

Wolfe's resignation is significant: Missouri is one of the 25 largest public universities in the country. But it all happened pretty fast. Here's what you need to know.


How did this all start?

Depending on whom you ask, the incidents that led to Wolfe's resignation go back a few months, or a few decades.


The group leading the campaign to address racism call themselves Concerned Student 1950 (CS50), after the first year black students were admitted to Missouri's only public university. By their accounting, the history of racism at the university dates back to 1935, when Lloyd Gaines petitioned the university to be its first black law student and was denied admission.

CS50's mission coalesced Oct. 10, when a group of students wearing black shirts and carrying bullhorns interrupted the school's homecoming parade by blocking the red convertible carrying UM System President Tim Wolfe. "The students…brought the parade to a halt while they denounced what they considered the administration's lackluster efforts to combat racism at MU," the Columbia Missourian reported.

Their grievances echo what my colleague Collier Meyerson reported Monday about many sensing an environment of "casual racism" on campus.

Prior to this incident, there were also concerns about the school's lack of response to the death of Michael Brown just a few hours away in Ferguson, Mo.


There were also protests over the treatment of graduate students facing cuts in pay and benefits.

Who is Jonathan Butler, and why did he go on a hunger strike?

Butler is a graduate student at the flagship Columbia campus. On Nov. 2, he started a hunger strike over what he called the "revolting" acts that had been occurring on campus in the first semester of the school year, and the university's perceived lackluster reaction. In a message posted to Facebook, Butler provided the most concise summary of the alleged incidents, that, taken together, deepened divisions at the school:


Notably, each of these happened just since August of this year.

What was President Wolfe's response?

By students' accounts, not enough.

A critical confrontation with Wolfe came during homecoming on Oct. 10. A group of protesters approached his car, but Wolfe did not get out. That angered protesters even further, and Wolfe apologized for not being more responsive. "My behavior seemed like I did not care," he said at the time. "That was not my intention.”


Ten days later, CS50 issued a set of demands that included increasing minority representation among the school's faculty and creating a mandatory curriculum on racial inclusion, in addition to calling for Wolfe's ouster.

That week, Wolfe agreed to meet with CS50 students, but the group said Wolfe did not agree to any of the demands they sent to him the previous week. Wolfe claimed he cared for black students at MU but was "not completely" aware of systemic racism, sexism, and patriarchy on campus, CS50 said.


On Nov. 6, Wolfe also met with Butler. Apparently dissatisfied with what proceeded, Butler continued his hunger strike.

Why did President Wolfe finally resign? 

Wolfe's resignation happened almost in the blink of an eye, and seemed unlikely up until the minute it happened. On Friday, Wolfe met with Butler, apologizing for not responding to student protests. “Racism does exist at our university, and it is unacceptable,” Wolfe said in a statement. “It is a long-standing, systemic problem which daily affects our family of students, faculty and staff. I am sorry this is the case.”


But Wolfe did not appear to put forward any concrete actions to address all the students' concerns.

On Saturday night, Missouri Tigers football players began tweeting that they would walk out on the rest of the season unless Butler could end his hunger strike by Wolfe stepping down. The next morning, Tigers football head coach Gary Pinkel—the highest-paid public employee in the state of Missouri and the most-successful coach in the team's history—tweeted that he stood in solidarity with his team.


The players' and Pinkel's stance catapulted the story onto the national stage (this was the same team and coach that also stood behind Michael Sam when he came out as gay). But at first, Wolfe still said he would not step down.


Finally, on Monday morning, faculty members began a walk out and a teach-in at the center quad. At a board meeting scheduled for 10 a.m. local time, Wolfe finally announced his resignation.

"Why did we get to this very difficult situation?" he asked in his resignation statement. "It is my belief we stopped listening to each other. We didn’t respond or react. We got frustrated with each other and we forced individuals like Jonathan Butler to take immediate action and unusual steps to affect change. This is not, the way change should come about."


What happens now?

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon issued a statement saying he "appreciated" Wolfe's gesture, and that there is now "more work to do," though he did not specify what that might entail.


Meanwhile, CS50 is continuing to push its list of demands:


It is likely other student groups, and perhaps football players in particular, will now feel especially emboldened to take stands for perceived injustices on campus.

Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.