COLUMBIA — When cotton balls were scattered outside the Black Culture Centre at the University of Missouri’s flagship campus in 2010 in a clear reference to slavery, two white students were arrested and expelled.
But there was no broader conversation about race anywhere at the school, where Blacks were not allowed to enrol until 1950.
“To say we were livid is an understatement,” said black alumna Erika Brown, who graduated in 2007 and 2012 and now lives in St Louis. “It was just another example of their finding the offender and never going past that. There was never a larger discussion.”
Five years later, when another series of racially charged incidents stirred emotions in Columbia, students emboldened by last year’s protests in Ferguson took action, leading to yesterday’s resignation of the university system’s president and the campus chancellor.
The race complaints came to a head last weekend, when at least 30 black football players announced they would not play until the president left. A graduate student went on a week-long hunger strike.
Reuben Faloughi, a third-year doctoral student in psychology from Augusta, Georgia, who participated in the recent protests, said more needed to be done. But he said he felt “liberated” by the exodus of system president Tim Wolfe, a former business executive with no previous experience in academic leadership.
The activism, he said, is a nod to Ferguson, the St Louis suburb about two hours from Columbia where Michael Brown, a black, unarmed 18-year-old, was killed by a police officer. After the shooting, Faloughi took part in a “die-in” protest in Columbia, joining others in feigning death in Brown’s memory.
“That was the first time I got involved in activism,” he said. “I never felt that unity before, that kind of energy. It was very empowering, and it planted the seeds that students can challenge things.”
Mike Sickels, a 32-year-old doctoral student from Glasgow, Kentucky, also credited Ferguson with inspiring the push for Columbia campus reforms. But he added: “This is something I wish had been happening here my entire tenure. I think universities should be bastions for this.”
A St Louis County grand jury and the Department of Justice ultimately exonerated officer Darren Wilson in Brown’s death, concluding that evidence backed Wilson’s claim that he shot Brown in self-defence after Brown tried to grab the officer’s gun.
But months of Ferguson protests scored what activists considered victories, including the resignations of the predominantly black city’s police chief, city manager and municipal judge. A new state law also limits cities’ ability
to profit from traffic tickets and court fines — a measure that followed the Justice Department’s findings that Ferguson’s policing and municipal court system unfairly profited from minorities.
At the University of Missouri, black student groups had complained for months that Wolfe was unresponsive to racial slurs and other slights.
Wolfe, hired in 2011 as the top administrator of the system, and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin, the top administrator for the Columbia campus, stepped down hours apart yesterday.
Students who pressed for Wolfe’s ouster celebrated yesterday. Critics considered him out of touch and insensitive. He said the university would draw up a plan to promote diversity and tolerance by April, a wait protesters considered laughably unacceptable. They were also frustrated by his response to black protesters who blocked his car during a homecoming parade. Wolfe did not get out and talk to them, and they were removed by police.
That followed a September incident in which the student government’s president, who is black, said people in a passing pickup truck shouted epithets at him. Early last month, members of a black student organization said slurs were hurled at them by an apparently drunken white student. Also, a swastika drawn in faeces was found recently in a dormitory bathroom.
In announcing his resignation during a meeting of the system’s governing curators, Wolfe took “full responsibility for the frustration” students expressed and said their complaints were “clear” and “real”. Later in the day, Loftin said he was stepping down at the end of the year to lead research efforts.
Loftin was an earlier target of criticism over a plan to remove graduate student health care subsidies that was not disclosed until just days before the start of the fall semester. The proposal has since been rescinded.
The chancellor also hit resistance over a decision an end to university contracts with a Planned Parenthood clinic — a move some called capitulation to conservative state lawmakers.
Protest organizer Shelbey Parnell told reporters: “We need an educator where an educator is supposed to be.”
Protesters said they were not finished. Parnell and other members of the group Concerned Student 1950 planned to push Missouri’s Governor Jay Nixon, the university system’s governing board and the Columbia campus faculty council for more changes. Among other things, they want a say in Wolfe’s successor, an emphasis on shared governance, more inclusivity for minority students and more black faculty.
Some change already is afoot. At Loftin’s request, the school announced plans to offer diversity training to all new students starting in January, as well as faculty and staff. The governing board said an interim system president would be named soon, and board members vowed yesterday to work toward a “culture of respect”.
Today, the university provost announced that Chuck Henson will serve as interim vice chancellor for inclusion, diversity and equity, a new role. Henson is associate dean for academic affairs and trial practice at the law school.
The governing board also promised a full review of other policies, more support for victims of discrimination and a more diverse faculty.
But Brown, the former student who now lives in St Louis, said she remained sceptical, given the school’s history with race relations.
“The question is: where do we go from here?” she said.