When cotton balls were found scattered outside the black culture center at the University of Missouri’s flagship campus in 2010 in a clear reference to slavery, two white students were arrested and expelled, with no larger discussion of race on a campus where blacks weren’t allowed to enroll until 1950.
“To say we were livid is an understatement,” says black alumna Erika Brown, who graduated with degrees in 2007 and 2012 and now lives in St. Louis. “It was just another example of them finding the offender and never going past that. There was never a larger discussion.”
Skip ahead five years to more racially charged incidents at the Columbia campus, where blacks account for just 8 percent of undergraduates. This time, students emboldened by last year’s protests in Ferguson took action, which led to the announcement that the university system’s president and the campus chancellor would resign — as well as the promise of even more changes.
Reuben Faloughi, a third-year doctoral student in psychology from Augusta, Georgia, who participated in the campus protests, said more needs to be done, but acknowledged feeling “liberated” by the exodus of university system President Tim Wolfe.
Such activism, he says, 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 told The Associated Press. “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 for 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 evidence backed Wilson’s claim that he shot Brown in self-defense after Brown tried to grab the officer’s gun.
But months of Ferguson protests still 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. The complaints came to a head Saturday, when at least 30 black football players announced they would not play until the president left. A graduate student went on a weeklong hunger strike.
Wolfe, hired in 2011 as the top administrator of the system, and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin stepped down hours apart Monday.
Students who pressed for Wolfe’s ouster celebrated it Monday. Critics considered him out of touch and insensitive, pointing to his claims the university was working to draw up a plan to promote diversity and tolerance — by April, a wait protesters considered laughably unacceptable. They also pointed to his response to black protesters who blocked his car during a homecoming parade; he 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. A swastika drawn in feces was found recently in a dormitory bathroom.
In announcing his resignation during a meeting of the system’s governing curators, Wolfe, a former business executive with no previous experience in academic leadership, 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 head research efforts.
Calling Wolfe too reactionary to be a leader, protest organizer Shelbey Parnell told reporters: “We need an educator where an educator is supposed to be.”
Parnell and other members of the group Concerned Student 1950 said they planned to aggressively make their case to Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, the university system’s curators and the Columbia campus’ faculty council. 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 Monday to work toward a “culture of respect.” The panel also planned to appoint an officer to oversee diversity and equality at all four campuses, and it 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 remains skeptical, given the school’s history with race relations.
“The question is, where do we go from here?” she said.
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