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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

Mizzou's racial tensions grab the attention of state leaders — and the nation

The University of Missouri-Columbia is under the national microscope after a series of racially-charged incidents on campus.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio file photo
The University of Missouri-Columbia is under the national microscope after a series of racially-charged incidents on campus.

With racial tensions at the University of Missouri-Columbia becoming a source of national discussion, state Rep. Steve Cookson did something on Sunday that many of the Show Me State’s statewide officials declined to do — call for University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe to step aside.

The Ripley County Republican joined state Reps. Caleb Jones, R-Columbia, and Gail McCann Beatty, D-Kansas City, in calling for the departure of Wolfe, the leader of four public universities across the state. Cookson provided a laundry list of problems that occurred under Wolfe’s watch, including a “callous reaction to racial sensitivity issues which he has now apologized for.”

That “callous reaction” barb is a reference to growing faculty and student uproar over Mizzou’s racial climate, which garnered national attention after black members of the school’s football team declared they wouldn’t participate in “football-related” activities until Wolfe stepped aside. Beatty, the highest ranking African-American lawmaker in the Missouri House, said in a statement Sunday night that “it has become increasingly clear in recent days that UM System President Tim Wolfe is not the person to tackle the university’s racial problems and a build future for the institution that all Missourians can be proud of.” 

Ultimately, Wolfe took Cookson's advice. He announced his resignation on Monday morning. It will likely spark a months-long scramble to find a replacement who will have to address some major issues on Columbia's campus.   

But while the University of Missouri’s troubles gained more attention after the football team stepped forward, the story here is far deeper than sports. 

Boiling pot  

Tensions have been high on the Columbia campus after a series of racial and religious incidents occurred over the past few months. Some black studentsincluding the president of the Missouri Students Association — recounted how they were subjected to racial slurs. And late last month, officials disclosed that a swastika formed withhuman waste was discovered at a resident hall. (Click here to read a timeline from the Columbia Missourian.) 

University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe talks to 'St. Louis on the Air' host Don Marsh on Jan. 29, 2015, at St. Louis Public Radio in St. Louis.
Credit File photo | Jason Rosenbaum / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe resigned from his post on Monday.

These recent events correspond with the school’s at-times troubled legacy with black students.

After a lengthy struggle, African-Americans weren’t admitted to Mizzou until 1950. The Department of Justice entered into mediation in the late 1980s with the university over the status of its diversity programs. And there were some high-profile local stories in 2004 and 2010 regarding the campus’ climate toward black students.

(It should also be noted that the city of Columbia, which is in the middle of the state,  has only had few black council members in its entire history. The city possesses its own lengthy history of racial strife, segregation and violence.)

Some of the state's heaviest hitters — including Gov. Jay Nixon, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, Attorney General Chris Koster and U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis — issued statements on Sunday that did not explicitly call for Wolfe to resign. In fact, statements from elected leaders only started coming about after Mizzou's football team announced that it wouldn't participate in "football-related" activities until Wolfe stepped aside.

But that tune changed on Monday. Many elected officials expressed relief about Wolfe's decision. Take, for instance, Nixon's statement:

“Tim Wolfe’s resignation was a necessary step toward healing and reconciliation on the University of Missouri campus, and I appreciate his decision to do so. There is more work to do, and now the University of Missouri must move forward – united by a commitment to excellence, and respect and tolerance for all.  The University of Missouri is an outstanding institution that will continue to play a vital role in our efforts to provide a world-class education to every Missouri student.”  

McCaskill put out a statement contending that Wolfe's resignation was the "right decision to help the University turn the page, and for its leaders to recommit to ending racism on campus."  "Tim Wolfe loves the University of Missouri, and his action today was a reflection of that," McCaskill, D-Mo., added.

Secretary of State Jason Kander, a Democrat who is running for the U.S. Senate, said in a statement that University of Missouri students "clearly lost faith in the administration's ability to make meaningful change in race relations on campus, and their voices were obviously heard loud and clear." 

And Attorney General Chris Koster said he supported today’s decision by Tim Wolfe, "but this step is a beginning and not an end."

"My hope is that the University of Missouri Board of Curators creates a process by which incidents can be reported and investigated in a manner that has credibility within the student body," said Koster, a Democrat who is likely running for governor. It is important that our flagship university learns from and is made better by this experience.”

For their parts, Cookson and Beatty both reacted positively to Wolfe's departure. Cookson said in a statement that "everyone involved in this turmoil, both students and adults, are personally responsible for their own actions or inactions." And Beatty added "it is the duty of the Board of Curators to take immediate action to address the concerns of minority students."

"Inaction and indifference is what brought us to this point," Beatty said. "The curators must not repeat that mistake. Instead, the curators should consider this an opportunity to make substantive changes to the university’s culture to ensure equality and respect for all students.” 

Eyes on the curators

Now that Wolfe has stepped aside, it will be up to the Board of Curators to pick his replacement. Nixon has appointed every single member of that nine-person body. Except for World Wide Technology chief Dave Steward, the board members are all white attorneys.

Gov. Jay Nixon
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Gov. Jay Nixon praised Wolfe's decision to step aside as the University of Missouri system's president.

It’s a very open question what a change in the UM System’s leadership would do to improve Mizzou’s climate toward African Americans. As former UM System President Peter Magrath noted in 2006, the leader of the system typically has limited interactions with the campuses and leaves the day-to-day management of the schools to the chancellors. And University of Missouri-Columbia Chancellor Bowen Loftin has himself been under fire on a number of fronts, including how he handled the university’s ties to Planned Parenthood.

“If you are a system president, the person who is the chief executive is not the chief operating officer for the campuses,” said Magrath in a 2006 Columbia Missourian article written by this reporter. “(The chief executive’s) responsibility is leadership and organization.”

Still, one of Wolfe’s predecessors took a more hands-on approach to administration-student relations. A former president of the Missouri Students Association noted how then-UM System President Elson Floyd responded quickly to student e-mails from his Blackberry. And while Floyd’s tenure was not without some very public controversies, Floyd, nicknamed “E-Flo” by some in the student body, contended that there’s not “another university president in the country who is as visible and accessible to students.”

To put that claim in perspective, the leaders of the Missouri Student Association sent out a statement on Monday morning calling for Wolfe to step down.

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics. 

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Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.