COLUMBIA, MO. - Long-simmering protests at the University of Missouri over matters of race and discrimination got a boost over the weekend when at least 30 black football players announced they will not participate in team activities until the university system's president is removed.
For months, black student groups have complained of racial slurs and other slights on the overwhelmingly white, 35,000-student flagship campus of the four-college system. Frustrations flared during a homecoming parade Oct. 10 when black protesters blocked system President Tim Wolfe's car and he would not get out and talk to them. They were removed by police.
On Saturday night, black members of the football team joined the outcry. By Sunday, a campus sit-in had grown in size, graduate student groups planned walk outs, politicians began to weigh in, and a special meeting of the university system's governing body was set for Monday morning in Columbia.
Wolfe hasn't indicated he has any intention of stepping down, but agreed in a statement Sunday that “change is needed” and said the university is working to draw up a plan by April to promote diversity and tolerance.
The athletes did not say explicitly whether they would boycott the team's three remaining games this season. The Tigers' next game is Saturday against Brigham Young University at Arrowhead Stadium, the home of the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs, and canceling it could cost the school more than $1 million.
“The athletes of color 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 marginalized students' experience. WE ARE UNITED!!!!!”
Head football coach Gary Pinkel expressed solidarity on Twitter, posting a picture of the team and coaches locking arms. The tweet said: “The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players.”
Practice and other team activities were canceled Sunday, Pinkel and Missouri athletic director Mack Rhoades said in a joint statement. The statement linked the return of the protesting football players to the end of a hunger strike by a black graduate student who began the effort Nov. 2 and has vowed to not eat until 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 protests began after the student government president, who is black, said in September that people in a passing pickup truck shouted racial slurs at him. In early October, members of a black student organization said slurs were hurled at them by an apparently drunken white student.
Also, a swastika drawn in feces was found recently in a dormitory bathroom.
Many of the protests have been led by an organization called Concerned Student 1950, which gets its name from the year the university accepted its first black student. Its members besieged Wolfe's car at the parade, and they have been conducting a sit-in on a campus plaza since last Monday.
On one point Sunday afternoon, two trucks flying Confederate flags drove past the site, a move many saw as an attempt at intimidation. At least 150 students gathered at the plaza Sunday night to pray, sing and read Bible verses, a larger crowd than on previous days. Many planned to camp there overnight amid temperatures that had dropped into the upper 30s.
Also joining in the protest effort are two graduate student groups that called for walkouts Monday and Tuesday.
Concerned Student 1950 has demanded, among other things, that Wolfe “acknowledge his white male privilege,” that he be removed immediately, and that the school adopt a mandatory racial-awareness program and hire more black faculty and staff.
One of the sit-in participants, Abigail Hollis, a black undergraduate, said the campus is “unhealthy and unsafe for us.”
“The way white students are treated is in stark contrast to the way black students and other marginalized students are treated, and it's time to stop that,” Hollis said. “It's 2015.”
Columbia is about 120 miles west of Ferguson, the St. Louis suburb where tensions erupted over the shooting death of unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown last year by a white police officer.
The school's undergraduate population is 79 percent white and 8 percent black. The state is about 83 percent white and nearly 12 percent black.
Wolfe, 56, is a former software executive and Missouri business school graduate whose father taught at the university. He was hired in 2011 as president, succeeding another former business executive who also lacked experience in academia.
He said Sunday that most of the group's demands have 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.
Already, at Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin's request, the university announced plans to require diversity training for all new students starting in January, along with faculty and staff.
Lawmakers and elected officials began to weigh in Sunday. The chairman of a Missouri House higher education committee, Poplar Bluff Republican Rep. Steven Cookson, said in a statement that Wolfe “can no longer effectively lead” and should leave his post. Joining him in calling for Wolfe's resignation was Assistant House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, the highest-ranking black member of that chamber.
Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon said the university must address the concerns so that the school is “a place where all students can pursue their dreams in an environment of respect, tolerance and inclusion.”
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri graduate, said the governing board needs to “send a clear message” to the students at the Columbia campus that they'll address racism.
The Board of Curators, the system's governing body, said in a statement that it planned to meet Monday morning. According to an agenda, part of the meeting will be closed to the public.
Missouri law allows the group to meet in a private “executive session” to discuss topics including privileged communications with university counsel or personnel matters, the statement said. A system spokesman didn't respond to questions about the meeting.
The racial issues are just the latest controversy at the university in recent months, following the suspension of graduate students' health care subsidies and an end to university contracts with a Planned Parenthood clinic that performs abortions.