Top university in crisis talks as race-hate protests grow

Published: Monday 9th November 2015 by The News Editor

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Governors at Missouri’s flagship university are holding a crisis meeting amid growing protests over race-hate incidents on campus.

A university spokesman did not say whether the group would address the status of University of Missouri System president Tim Wolfe – the target of protests by students, including 32 black football players who said they would not participate in team activities until he was removed.

One black graduate student, Jonathan Butler, 25, is on a hunger strike.

Mr Wolfe has given no indication that he intends to step down but agreed that “change is needed” and said the university was working to draw up a plan by April to promote diversity and tolerance.

The university’s board of curators will meet on the system’s Columbia campus. According to an agenda provided in a statement, part of the meeting will be closed to the public.

The statement says Missouri law allows the group to meet in a private “executive session” to discuss topics such as privileged communications with university counsel or personnel matters.

For months, black student groups have complained of racial slurs and other slights on the overwhelmingly white 35,000-student Columbia campus. Frustrations boiled over during the homecoming parade on October 10 when black protesters blocked Mr Wolfe’s car and he would not get out and talk to them. The protesters were removed by police.

On Saturday night, black members of the football team joined the outcry.

“The athletes of colour on the University of Missouri football team truly believe ‘Injustice Anywhere is a threat to Justice Everywhere’,” the players said in a statement.

“We will no longer participate in any football related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed due to his negligence toward marginalised students’ experience. WE ARE UNITED!!!!!”

Head football coach Gary Pinkel expressed solidarity with the black players on Twitter by posting a picture of the team and coaches locking arms. The tweet read: “The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players.”

The statement linked the return of the protesting football players to the end of a hunger strike by a black graduate student who has vowed to not eat until Mr Wolfe is gone.

“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,” the statement said.

The campus protests began after the student government president, who is black, said in September that people in a passing pick-up truck shouted racial slurs at him. Days before the homecoming parade, members of a black student organisation said slurs were hurled at them by an apparently drunken white student.

A swastika drawn in faeces was found recently in a dormitory toilet.

Mr Butler, who participated in the homecoming parade protest, began his hunger strike on November 2 to call attention to racial problems at the state’s top university.

Many of the protests have been led by an organisation called Concerned Student 1950, named after the year the university accepted its first black student. Its members besieged Mr Wolfe’s car at the homecoming and have been conducting a sit-in on a campus plaza since last Monday.

The organisation has demanded among other things that Mr Wolfe “acknowledge his white male privilege” that he be removed immediately, and that the school adopt a mandatory racial-awareness programme and employ more black faculty and staff.

Abigail Hollis, a black undergraduate, said the campus was “unhealthy and unsafe for us”.

“The way white students are treated is in stark contrast to the way black students and other marginalised students are treated, and it’s time to stop that,” she said. “It’s 2015.”

She said Mr Wolfe has shown “much more of a lack of concern and much more of a lack of understanding for us” than other administrators.

Mr Wolfe said on Sunday that most of the 1950 group’s demands had already been incorporated into the university’s draft plan for promoting tolerance.

“It is clear to all of us that change is needed,” he said.

At chancellor Bowen Loftin’s request, the university has announced plans to require diversity training for all new students starting in January, along with faculty and staff.

Mr Wolfe, 56, is a former software executive and Missouri business school graduate whose father taught at the university. He was employed in 2011 as president of a four-campus system that includes Columbia, succeeding another former business executive who also lacked experience in academia.

The campus in Columbia is about 120 miles west of Ferguson, the St Louis suburb where tensions erupted over the shooting death of unarmed black man Michael Brown, 18, last year by a white police officer.

The school’s undergraduate population is 79% white and 8% black. The state is about 83% white and nearly 12% black.

The university has been involved in other controversies. It recently suspended graduate students’ health care subsidies and university contracts with a Planned Parenthood clinic that performs abortions.

Two years ago, Mr Pinkel and his team made headlines after defensive end Michael Sam came out as gay. The player came out to his team-mates and coaches before the 2013 season and they agreed to keep his secret until he was ready to go public.

Published: Monday 9th November 2015 by The News Editor

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