On the campus of the University of Missouri, graduate student Jonathan Butler has been starving himself in an effort to remove the school’s president Tim Wolfe from his position. Today, on the seventh day of his protest, Butler won.
Butler’s protest was never a solitary one—he is the face of a student group calling itself Concerned Student 1950—but the speed with which it metastasized and engulfed the university had to have surprised Wolfe.
Butler and his allies were, broadly speaking, protesting the treatment of minority (primarily black) students on Missouri’s campus. Butler said that he would not eat until Wolfe—the president of the University of Missouri System, which encompasses both the flagship campus in Columbia as well as smaller colleges across the state—resigned his position. Wolfe, even in the face of growing attention and pressure, as the story became a national one, had refused to do so. On Sunday he stood his ground in a statement, but by then, his position had clearly become untenable.
On Saturday night, the black members of the school’s football team announced that they would not practice nor play until Wolfe was no longer the school’s president, and Butler had resumed eating. On Sunday, the team’s coach, Gary Pinkel, released a statement saying that his coaching staff and team were united, and would not participate in any football activities until Wolfe resigned or was removed. That was going to include the team’s next game, on Saturday, against Brigham Young University, which is scheduled to air on an ESPN network.
At Missouri, an SEC school, football is big business. Pinkel, the coach, makes $4 million per year; Wolfe, the president, made less than $500,000. The football program institutionally supporting its black players protesting along with Butler was probably this situation’s greatest possible escalator—it’s what made Butler’s protest into a topic of coverage for ESPN—but the players, too, weren’t acting alone. A group of teachers called the Concerned Faculty Group announced this morning that they would be conducting a two-day walkout in support of Butler and Concerned Student 1950. The school’s student government also released a statement this morning demanding Wolfe’s resignation. State legislators, including Columbia’s representative and the chairman of the state House’s Committee on Higher Education, both of whom are Republicans, also called on Wolfe to resign. Wolfe was under attack from just about every conceivable side, and despite his obstinacy, his resignation was not a question of “if,” but “when.”
So, what brought us here? It’s perhaps easiest to work backwards. On October 10, during the school’s annual homecoming parade, Butler and other members of Concerned Student 1950 blockaded the vintage convertible that was carrying Wolfe. According to witnesses, the driver of the convertible revved the car’s engine while it was stopped before eventually bumping into Butler. The group was also heckled by parade attendees. Wolfe was reportedly silent during the protest.
Butler began his hunger strike in response to Wolfe, over the subsequent month, refusing to acknowledge that demonstration or the reasons for which it was carried out. The aim of the homecoming parade protest was to draw attention to what Butler and Concerned Student 1950 say is an inhospitable campus climate for minorities. In a letter announcing his hunger strike, Butler referenced several incidents:
- On September 12, student body president Payton Head wrote on Facebook that he had been called a “nigger” while walking through campus. It was not the first instance, and the school’s Legion of Black Collegians say the slur was also used against them while they were rehearsing a play outdoors on October 5. In his Facebook post, Head also wrote about the on-campus oppression faced by LGBT, disabled, Muslim and female students.
- On October 24, a swastika was drawn in feces on the bathroom wall of a residence hall.
- In September, the university announced it was removing the hospital privileges of Colleen McNicholas, a doctor who performed abortions at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Columbia. Per the Kansas City Star, state law dictates that “a doctor can only perform abortions if he or she has clinical privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of where the abortions are taking place.” The school’s decision effectively ended abortion in Columbia.
- Earlier in the fall semester, the school announced that it was revoking health insurance subsidies for graduate students. After an immediate backlash, the policy was reversed.
Though these were the recent incidents that sparked the protest that led to Wolfe’s resignation, the oppression felt, and indignities suffered, by minority students and faculty did not, of course, begin just this semester. Cynthia Frisby, a professor at the school’s historic and loudly trumpeted journalism school, has lived in Columbia for 18 years. She wrote in a Facebook post that she had “been called the n word too many times to count.” She also wrote specifically of several disturbing incidents of racism:
Some of you may recall my most recent experience while jogging on Route K in May of 2015 when I was approached by a white man in a white truck with a confederate flag very visible and proudly displayed. He leaned out his window (now keep in mind I run against traffic so his behavior was a blatant sign that something was about to happen). Not only did he spit at me, he called me the n-word and gave me the finger. Of course, I responded with “Oh yea, get out of your car you coward and say that to my face.” He then raced off. Typical. Others of you may recall that after the Zimmerman trial, I wrote about my experiences being called the n word twice while I was on my jog. And yes, I have had a few faculty call me the n word and treat me with incredible disrespect. Yes, faculty. I have had a student who said he couldn’t call me Dr. Frisby because that would mean that he thinks I am smart and he was told that blacks are not smart and do not earn degrees without affirmative action. Yes, true story. I have so many stories to share that it just doesn’t make sense to put them all here.
In my final year as a student at Mizzou, cotton balls were thrown onto the lawn of the Black Culture Center, which is centrally located on campus, during Black History Month. In 2011, a racial slur was spray painted onto a statue outside a residence hall. In 2012, racist flyers were posted in another dorm.
In the wake of the graffiti incident, the school launched a “diversity initiative” called One Mizzou, which then-chancellor Brady Deaton called his “proudest moment.” But One Mizzou, as a concept and a name, was discontinued this summer at the behest of the students who it was supposed to benefit. A campaign that was initially supposed to promote tolerance and inclusion on campus had morphed into a generic marketing slogan for the school itself. The baby steps had led nowhere.
The co-opting and eventual euthanizing of One Mizzou were emblematic of a simple fact that is as true in Columbia as it is in America: The University of Missouri, and the community in and around it, were aware of, and attentive to, the experiences of its minority students only in the worst of moments. When asked to confront and address the commonplace indignities minority students experience at his university during the homecoming parade—a celebration, not a crisis—Wolfe, the ostensible leader of that community, had no response. He will be gone, though not forgotten—certainly not by his peers, who may now find themselves asked to acknowledge, and fix, problems they didn’t know existed.
[image via AP]