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Students at the University of Missouri Demand Change Amidst a Neglected Culture of Racism

This past November, the president of the University of Missouri (MU), Tim Wolfe resigned after accused of sidestepping a growing culture of racism on the Columbia, OH campus. His resignation was a culmination of months of protests by students infuriated by the administration’s lack of accountability towards persisting racial incidents. Amid dozens of protests, the president remained unfazed and disinclined to take action. Ultimately, a hunger strike and the football team’s threat to boycott games left the administration cornered in the national spotlight. The protest’s impact surpassed MU borders, and students from hundreds of institutions across the country have rallied behind MU’s demand for change.

In a letter to the administration, MU’s undergraduate student government – the Missouri Students Association (MSA) – accused the administration of “enabling a system of racism,” and thereby failing the MU community. The racism itself didn’t push the student body over the edge, however hostile it was, so much as the administration’s “gross negligence” of that racism.

Their failure to address frequent racial slurring is the most illustrative of the administration’s negligence, ultimately driving student activist Jonathan Butler to form the group Concerned Student 1950.

For years, racial tensions on campus had run both rampant, and administrators consistently neglected it. Yet in the past few months, two incidents of racial slurring set the uprising into gear. In September, Payton Head, president of the MSA, was slurred at while on his way to class. “Some guys in the back of a pickup just started yelling the ‘N Word’ at me,” he said in an interview with the MU student newspaper. Head and his fellow students protested furiously for weeks with no response from the administration.

Then in October, MU’s black student government, Legion of Black Collegians (LBC) was slurred at as the group rehearsed for the homecoming parade. The LBC confronted president Wolfe the following night in a school parking lot as he passed by in his car. Wolfe refused to get out of the car, and rather than stop to address the issue, he demanded that his driver keep moving, injuring two students in the process.

The racial hostility that plagued UM was presented to Wolfe that night and yet again he dismissed it. However, the students refused to be silent this time and severe repercussions followed. Infuriated with the administration, graduate student Jonathan Butler and Concerned Student 1950 launched a hunger strike that would end only if Wolfe resigned. Student outrage in the hunger strike was intensified by equally aggrieved faculty members. Concerned Student 1950 gathered 7,000 faculty signatures calling for Wolfe’s removal. Then, the football team refused to play until Wolfe resigned. The incident cost the University millions of dollars and posed the greatest threat to the institution, ultimately dethroning President Wolfe.

In a speech Wolfe responded regretfully.

“Had I gotten out of the car to acknowledge the students and talk with them, perhaps we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

He then addressed his resignation as a positive step towards change.

“The frustration and anger I see is real, and I don’t doubt it for a second. I take full responsibility for the action that has occurred… I’d ask everybody…to use my resignation to heal and start talking again, to make changes necessary.”

While the apology seemed sincere to MU’s students and faculty, it was inexcusably overdue, and for Concerned Student 1950, it was not enough to compensate for the incidents that had occurred. The group set up a list of demands that surpassed far beyond Wolfe resigning. It proposed that the school reform its administration from the top down so “all future MU presidents and Chancellor positions be selected by a collective of students, staff and faculty of diverse backgrounds.” The group proposed reforms such as an “increase of the percentage of black faculty to 10%” and an “increase in funding for social justice centers on campus for the purpose of…increasing campus wide awareness and visibility.”

Ultimately, the Concerned Student 1950 felt Wolfe’s removal was not enough to fight racial hostility at MU. Students hope their involvement in selecting and advising the administration in the future will play a major role in averting racism. The underlying problem behind this racism at MU may be that institutions often grandstand their pursuit of diversity as an honorable achievement. They succeed in advertising their diversity, but fail miserably in protecting it. On the other hand, Concerned Student 1950 believes a diverse faculty and administration will not only maintain diversity on campus but also protect it.

Some, however, are not so convinced that revamping the school administration will prevent racist behavior. But Slater, a writer for the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, for example, believes that a zero-tolerance policy is the most efficient and reliable strategy in preventing a culture of racism. “If students know they are going to be expelled, it is likely students would think twice before participating in racist behavior” he told CNN.

Concerned Student 1950’s tremendous influence on students and administrators throughout the country is tangible. Students at Claremont McKenna College, Yale, and Amherst College are few of the many colleges quick to follow Concerned Student 1950’s example of demanding change and placing administrators under the microscope. At Claremont Makenna, student protesters similarly forced their dean out of office after she labeled their minority demographic as students who “didn’t fit the CMC mold.” At Yale over 800 students signed a letter to their president Peter Salovey, upset at his insensitive response to an incident regarding racist Halloween costumes earlier this year. The letter contained a list of demands similar to the one proposed by Concerned Student 1950. Then, at Amherst College, a sit-in to fight racial injustice took place in the school library where hundreds of black and Latino students voiced their feelings of alienation and exclusion.

Overall, Wolfe’s resignation marked a major milestone not just for Concerned Student 1950 but for hundreds of black and other racial minority students across the country who feel like outsiders. And in Wolfe’s resignation lies a major lesson – the administration that fails to act on racism is equally responsible as the racists themselves.

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