A rapidly accelerating crisis at the University of Missouri calls for drastic measures, starting with the departure of Tim Wolfe, the university system president.
Members of the Board of Curators need to step up and take control of the situation, something Wolfe refuses to do.
Wolfe’s response Sunday to explosive developments on the Columbia campus was woefully inadequate.
A student is in the seventh day of a hunger strike, angry protesters are camped out on the lawns, and black players on the football team have vowed not to return to the field until Wolfe leaves his post.
All of this is in reaction to the failure of Wolfe and MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin to respond adequately to a series of racist incidents on campus beginning in September.
But Wolfe on Sunday again could not muster the necessary urgency.
In a written statement, he acknowledged that “change is needed.” But he then wandered into an explanation of “a systemwide diversity and inclusion strategy” that apparently will be announced in April.
Graduate student Jonathan Butler, 25, is refusing food, putting his health and life at risk, precisely because Wolfe, Loftin and others responded to racist incidents on campus in bureaucratic, uncaring fashion. A strategic plan to be rolled out five months from now is not the decisive action required to quell the crisis.
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A lone student refusing to eat doesn’t justify the removal of the president of a four-campus university system. But hundreds of students are supporting his cause, united loosely under the banner of a group called Concerned Students 1950. (The date marks the first year black students were allowed to matriculate at the University of Missouri.)
Those numbers now include the Missouri football team. Black players on Saturday announced they would not participate in practices or games until Wolfe vacates his office. Their action vaulted the campus unrest into a story commanding nationwide attention.
In a stunning lack of confidence in Wolfe’s ability to run the university system, head football coach Gary Pinkel and his staff announced they would stand with the players. Clearly, the problems on campus run deep and include a lack of respect for leadership.
Ugly incidents this school year include racial slurs directed to a black student who is president of the Missouri Students Association, racial epithets hurled at the Legion of Black Collegians as they rehearsed for a performance and the discovery of a swastika drawn with human feces in the restroom of a residence hall.
Confrontations between Wolfe and black students, including a standoff at MU’s homecoming parade and another in Kansas City on Friday night, have shown Wolfe appearing clueless about the students’ perspectives and how to respond.
The Columbia campus has other problems. Graduate students are worried about the removal of benefits. Some faculty and alumni are upset about Loftin’s decision to yield to political pressure and revoke university hospital admitting privileges for a doctor who also works for Planned Parenthood. Leadership changes at the medical school have not been adequately explained.
And at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, there is dissatisfaction with Wolfe’s muted response to a scandal resulting from leaders of the Henry W. Bloch School of Business submitting false data to pump up the school’s rankings.
Wolfe’s ability to lead the University of Missouri system is irreparably damaged. The university curators, who are appointed by the governor, need to recognize that and remove Wolfe immediately. Until they do, it is difficult to see how calm will be restored.
Regardless of the curators’ next move, Butler should discontinue his hunger strike. He has already achieved dramatic change at his university. Butler is a student leader whose help will be needed in the months ahead. He must not continue to place his health and life at risk.