Students at the University of Missouri stunned the nation Monday when they succeeded in forcing the resignation of both Tim Wolfe, president of the University system, and R. Bowen Loftin, Chancellor of its main campus. Students had demanded the president’s resignation after he failed to do anything about recent racial incidents on campus. The protest has been going on since September 24, but it ended today—successfully.
The unrest began in September when the African-American president of student government, Payton Head, reported that men in a pickup shouted racial slurs at him. Then in October, a drunken white student shouted racial slurs at members of a black student organization. A swastika was drawn on the wall of a dorm bathroom with feces. Despite complaints to the administration, nothing was done and the incidents were not investigated. Black students attempted to talk with President Wolfe during homecoming, but he refused. The frustrated students began protesting, and the movement grew.
One student, Jonathan Butler, had been on a week-long hunger strike. Butler said it would not end until Wolfe was gone or Butler died. A faculty group indicated it was going to stage a walk-out in support of the students. Then on Saturday, 30 members of the Mizzou football team and its coach announced they would not participate in practice or next week’s game with BYU. Monday, after a meeting with the institution’s governing board, the two men abruptly resigned.
This is reminiscent of the 1960’s. Students have brought about change through peaceful, but persistent, protest. Student power is back.
No one knows what Tim Wolfe was worth to the Missouri University system, but it is clear he is not worth a million dollars. That is what it would have cost MU in fines if the team failed to show up at the game Saturday. If the strike continued for subsequent games, the penalties would grow. Regardless of their views over the protests, Wolfe had to go just to get the football team back on the field.
This speaks as much about how important athletics is to universities today as it does about the merits of the student protest. Had the team not joined the protest, this story might have had a different ending. But they joined along with their coach. Kudos are due to them for having the strength of their convictions.
Students are becoming more like students in the 1960’s. Across the nation, students are beginning to protest perceived injustices. Students were very active in the protests at Ferguson, an hour and a half from Columbia. At Ithaca College in upstate New York, students are circulating a petition asking for a vote of “confidence” or “no confidence” of President Tom Rochon, who critics say has given inadequate response to several allegedly racist incidents at that college.
On the other side of the political spectrum, protests have erupted at Yale after the university sent an email to students urging them not to wear racially insensitive Halloween costumes. The email prompted a professor to complain that Yale and other universities were becoming “places of censure and prohibition.”
In Jefferson County, Colorado, students walked out and protested for days earlier this year after conservative members of the School Board began changing history books and eliminating teachers, who happened to be union members. Soon, the students attracted support from the community. An effort to recall the three Tea Party members of the board was launched, and on November 3rd, voters overwhelmingly booted them out. Students started this and students won.
It is a good bet that the events in Columbia, Missouri today will reverberate across the land. Administrators in institutions of higher education, and even high schools, are certainly taking note. If nothing else, administrators will be more likely to listen to complaints about racism, and other discrimination from students. The days of ignoring them may be coming to a close.
Change takes time, but change begins with a single step. Students are leading the way once again. In the 1960’s, students fueled the Civil Rights movement by sitting in at lunch counters, getting their heads busted, and arrested. Students across the land protested until the War in Vietnam ended. Students were very active in the effort to bring about better working conditions for farm workers led by Caesar Chavez. They joined women in the cause for equal rights. Will the events in Missouri inspire others? Stay tuned.