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Missouri university president steps down over race complaints

Published 09/11/2015

Members of the Legion of Black Collegians and the Concerned Student 1950 supporters gather after an emotional protest on the University of Missouri campus (Missourian/AP)
Members of the Legion of Black Collegians and the Concerned Student 1950 supporters gather after an emotional protest on the University of Missouri campus (Missourian/AP)

The president of a US university has stepped down amid criticism of his handling of student complaints about race and discrimination.

University of Missouri System president Tim Wolfe said his resignation was effective immediately.

He made the announcement at the start of what had been expected to be a lengthy closed-door meeting of the school's governing board.

Mr Wolfe largely pre-empted that session in a statement that was simultaneously apologetic, clumsy and defiant.

"This is not the way change comes about," he said, alluding to recent protests. "We stopped listening to each other."

He urged students, faculty and staff to "use my resignation to heal and start talking again to make the changes necessary".

A poor audio feed for the one board member who was attending the meeting via conference call left Mr Wolfe standing awkwardly at the podium for nearly three minutes after only being able to read the first sentence of his statement.

The race complaints came to a head over the weekend when at least 30 black football players announced they would not participate in team activities until Mr Wolfe was gone.

For months, black student groups have complained of racial slurs and other slights on the overwhelmingly white flagship campus of the state's four-college system.

Frustrations flared during a homecoming parade on October 10 when black protesters blocked Mr Wolfe's car, and he did not get out and talk to them. They were removed by police.

Black members of the football team joined the outcry on Saturday night. By Sunday, a campus sit-in had grown in size, graduate student groups planned walkouts and politicians began to weigh in.

Mr Wolfe had not indicated that he had any intention of stepping down. He agreed in a statement issued on Sunday that "change is needed" and said the university was working to draw up a plan by April to promote diversity and tolerance.

The Tigers' next game is on Saturday against Brigham Young University at Arrowhead Stadium, the home of the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs, and cancelling it could cost the school more than one million US dollars (£661,000).

"The athletes of colour 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 marginalised 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 cancelled on Sunday.

A statement issued by Mr Pinkel and Missouri athletic director Mack Rhoades linked the return of the protesting football players to the end of a hunger strike by a black graduate student who began the effort on November 2 and has vowed to not eat until Mr 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 pick-up truck shouted racial slurs at him.

In early October, members of a black student organisation said slurs were hurled at them by an apparently drunken white student.

Also, a swastika drawn in faeces was found in a dormitory bathroom recently.

Many of the protests have been led by an organisation called Concerned Student 1950, which gets its name from the year the university accepted its first black student.

Its members besieged Mr Wolfe's car at the parade, and they have been conducting a sit-in on a campus plaza since last Monday.

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