When Tim Wolfe was being interviewed as a candidate to be president of the University of Missouri system four years ago, curator Wayne Goode of Normandy was wary of hiring a businessman to head the four-campus system.
But after Wolfe resigned Monday in the wake of growing protests over racial incidents at the university’s flagship campus in Columbia, Goode said he not only was won over by Wolfe’s management of the system, he worries about being able to recruit suitable candidates to replace him.
“It could be very difficult,” Goode said of recruiting a new president, in an interview a few hours after Wolfe announced his resignation in Columbia before a hastily arranged closed-door meeting of the Board of Curators.
“I would think any candidate for president would be pretty leery to come in to a university that allowed a relatively small number of students to use an issue like this to demand the resignation of a president who really couldn’t, in my opinion at least, be personally blamed for those occurrences at all.
“I think this sets a terrible precedent, not only for the University of Missouri but for universities elsewhere. It’s almost an invitation for chaos.”
Wolfe won't be the only top administrator the university needs to hire. R. Bowen Loftin, the chancellor of the Columbia campus who also has been under fire from student protests, announced late Monday that he would be moving out of that role into one where he will be coordinating research for the university.
Protests against Wolfe followed several racial incidents at Mizzou but escalated after the homecoming parade in Columbia. Several protesters approached Wolfe’s car, which bumped one of them, Jonathan Butler. In response, Butler began a hunger strike that eventually galvanized the campus demonstrations, bringing in faculty members and football players who vowed not to play in this weekend’s game in Kansas City.
Wolfe made a variety of attempts to smooth over the growing unrest, but he was met with bolder resistance with each passing day. In advance of Monday morning’s executive session of the curators, he announced his resignation. Butler immediately said he would end his week-long hunger strike. And the football team said it will take the field after all.
Shift in target of protests
Race and other issues have stirred protests and demonstrations in Columbia for weeks against Loftin. The Columbia Tribune reported Monday that nine deans on campus had drafted a letter to the curators urging that Loftin be fired. The English department at Mizzou had cast a vote of no-confidence against the chancellor last week.
At the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Chancellor Tom George issued a statement Monday afternoon noting that the racial incidents that ignited the demonstrations in Columbia are not isolated.
“We live in a greater society that continues to wrestle with systemic racism, social justice and equal opportunity,” George wrote in his letter to UMSL students, faculty, staff and alumni.
“The University of Missouri–St. Louis has many guiding principles – none more important than civility, diversity and inclusion. As one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse campuses in Missouri, UMSL is committed to maintaining a climate where all students, faculty, staff and visitors can explore their interests, refine their talents and flourish.”
George said efforts to counteract problems due to race have increased since the death of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson in August of last year.
“But we need to do more,” he wrote. “This morning, I asked members of the Chancellor’s Cultural Diversity Council to organize a forum during which members of the UMSL community can express their views and share their ideas about making UMSL better.
“I will participate in this and other forums and meetings, but do not plan to outline their format or agenda. I believe leaving the details and scheduling to the Council better ensures the openness that will yield the type of results that will benefit us all.”
He said Wolfe’s departure, and the protracted protests in Columbia, have increased pressure on him to act at UMSL.
“As you might expect,” George said, “I have started receiving phone calls and emails from varied individuals and groups on and off campus wanting to discuss their experiences and views on this campus and other UM campuses. Some just want to know what comes next. I don’t have a quick fix or answer to all the issues, but I will try to respond as quickly as I can to each and every request to meet or for information.
“I think it best at this point to accept President Wolfe’s resignation as an opportunity to talk more – and louder – about longstanding issues … bringing about positive change at UMSL and influencing change in the larger community.”
While Monday’s drama was being played out in Columbia, a demonstration against racism was also being held at Yale.
And while the departure of Wolfe met one of the demands from the group known as Concerned Student 1950 – named after the year that the university admitted its first African-American student – many others remained.
They include that the university create “comprehensive racial awareness and inclusion curriculum throughout all campus departments and units, mandatory for all students, faculty, staff, and administration” and that by the academic year 20172018, the the university increases the percentage of black faculty and staff campuswide to 10 percent.
Goode – who as a lawmaker was instrumental in setting aside the Normandy property that became the UMSL campus – said that discussions of race did not really arise in interviews with Wolfe when he was being considered for the presidency.
“That wasn't a big issue in the selection process at all,” he said. “The assumption is that anyone being hired at that level in this day and age is very much attuned to those issues and would do whatever needed to be done to address them.”
He added that the way the issue played out in Columbia was difficult to anticipate.
“I've never quite seen a situation come about like this,” Goode said. “It's not that the occurrences weren't serious. But on the other hand, from what I could see, they weren't monumental. And there weren't individuals identified who had carried out a couple of the situations that were described, where anyone could point out who they were and make it easy for situations to be addressed.
“I think Tim, for what he saw as the good of the university took the blame. But I personally don't think he was to blame.”
Asked whether the situation would have unfolded differently if the president were someone with more experience in higher education, rather than in business, Goode said he did not think that factor was much of an issue.
“I think Tim was managing the university in the best interests of faculty and of students as well,” he said. “He has done a lot to improvement management within the university.
“I was one of the more reluctant curators at the time, when we were going through the hiring process, in regard to hiring someone who didn't have an academic background. But in watching and participating in the management of the university since Tim's been there, I think he's done a very good job, and his management skills were just what was needed.”
Protests that had been aimed at Loftin switched to Wolfe with a suddenness that surprised Goode, and in a way that he thought was inappropriate.
“I think campus problems should first be addressed at the campus level,” he said. “That's where this should have better addressed and more quickly, the response should have been quicker.
“Unless things get really out of hand, you don't see, and I don't think you want to see, either the president or the Board of Curators getting into the daily operations of the four campuses. I think the anger among the students was misdirected, and I don't know what caused it to go that way, other than that they wanted to target somebody that was going to get the most attention, locally, nationally. That certainly happened. So that's where we are.”