To the students, Tim Wolfe seemed to be speaking another language.
The University of Missouri system president emerged from a fundraiser on Friday night dressed in sharp suit and a baby blue tie. For weeks, he had sidestepped questions about a string of racist incidents on campus. When surrounded by protesters at a homecoming parade, he had driven off. Now a group of African American students were waiting for him.
Spurred on by the hunger strike of a fellow student, the small crowd peppered Wolfe with questions. As the head of their university, did he even know what systematic oppression was?
“I will give you an answer, and I’m sure it will be a wrong answer,” Wolfe said.
“You gonna Google it?” one of the students asked sarcastically.
“I will give you an answer, and I’m sure it will be a wrong answer,” Wolfe repeated. “Systematic oppression is when you don’t believe that you have the equal opportunity for success….”
He didn’t get any further. Stung by the suggestion that racial oppression was more imagined than real, the crowd erupted in anger and disbelief.
“Did you just blame us for systematic oppression, Tim Wolfe?” a student shouted angrily as Wolfe turned his back and walked away. “Did you just blame black students?”
Barely 24 hours later, however, the war of words had become something else: a fight over finances.
And that the businessman-cum-college president could understand.
On Saturday night, a group of African American students on the University of Missouri’s football team — including several stars — announced that they were joining protesters.
“We will no longer participate in any football-related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed due to his negligence toward marginalized students’ experiences,” they wrote in a statement posted to Twitter along with a photo of them locked arm-in-arm with Jonathan Butler, the student on hunger-strike.
On Sunday, MU football coach Gary Pinkel seemed to throw his entire team’s support behind the protests, tweeting a picture of his players along with the protest’s #ConcernedStudent1950 hashtag and the message: “The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players.”
“After meeting with the team this morning, it is clear they do not plan to return to practice until Jonathan resumes eating,” Pinkel and Athletic Director Mack Rhoades said in a statement.
At stake is more than just pride for the struggling Southeastern Conference squad. If the football team’s boycott doesn’t end by Saturday, when Mizzou is scheduled to play BYU, the school won’t just forfeit the game; it will also automatically forfeit $1 million for breaking a contract between the two colleges. For MU, the total cost likely will be far higher.
If Wolfe was sluggish to respond to repeated complaints of racism, then the threat to the university’s bottom dollar seems to have spurred the former businessman into action.
“It is clear to all of us that change is needed,” he said in a statement released Sunday afternoon. “My administration has been meeting around the clock and has been doing a tremendous amount of reflection on how to address these complex matters.
“Clearly, we are listening to all sides, and are confident that we can come together to improve the student experience on our campuses. We want to find the best way to get everyone around the table and create the safe space for a meaningful conversation that promotes change.”
Wolfe said the university has been working on a “diversity and inclusion strategy,” which it had intended to announce in April 2016. The plan, he said, would address many of the concerns voiced by Concerned Student 1950.
Even if the football financial threat finally seems to have Wolfe and the protesters speaking the same language, however, it might be too late to save the university president’s position.
The university’s board of curators has called a special behind-closed-doors meeting on Monday morning, according to the Associated Press. Even if the board doesn’t fire him, Wolfe is under mounting pressure to resign.
On Sunday, the state’s top legislator on education called for Wolfe to step down.
“… It has become clear that the MU system leadership can no longer effectively lead and should step aside,” said Rep. Steve Cookson, Republican chairman of the Missouri House Committee on Higher Education, citing a string of alleged missteps by Wolfe, according to the Missouri Times.
“The lack of leadership Mizzou has been dealing with for months has finally reached the point of being a national embarrassment,” added Rep. Caleb Jones, another Republican who represents Boone County, home to the university’s flagship Columbia campus. “It’s time for a change in leadership and start the healing process.”
Student mobilization against Wolfe also appears to be accelerating. Two graduate student groups at MU have called for walkouts this week in support of the protesters. The Steering Committee of the Forum on Graduate Rights and the Coalition of Graduate Workers have organized student walkouts for Monday and Tuesday to demand Wolfe’s resignation, according to the Associated Press.
And on Sunday night, a group of about 150 students gathered on campus to pray for Butler and call for Wolfe to step down.
The swelling chorus of opposition has clearly surprised Wolfe, a former software executive who took over the MU system nearly four years ago.
His tenure wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. When he was appointed MU system president on Feb. 15, 2012, curators hailed him as a hometown hero who could run the university like a tech company.
Wolfe was a former local high school football star whose father taught communications at Mizzou. After studying business at the school, Wolfe went to work for IBM, rising up through its executive ranks over the course of 20 years. He then moved to Novell, a nearly $1 billion software company, where, as president of its Americas division, he oversaw more than 3,000 employees.
University of Missouri curators saw Wolfe as an ideal successor to Gary Foresee, a former Sprint Nextel CEO who had become the first non-academic to run the college system. Even their praise was couched in business jargon.
“He can sell to others the vital importance of our university,” board of curators chair Warren Erdman told the Rolla Daily News.
But when he was asked how his business background would help him as the head of a university system, Wolfe seemed vague, if not downright stumped.
“I’ve had the great fortune to work with a lot of different companies and executives,” he told the St. Louis Business Journal. “There’s a six degrees of separation and we can get access. Even if you don’t have a personal relationship, you can use your LinkedIn network and can typically find a mutual friend who can initiate an introduction.”
It quickly became clear that Wolfe was being brought in to cut costs in a state where legislators were eager to slash taxes, depriving the university of revenue.
“Erdman and his colleagues asked campus leaders and incoming President Tim Wolfe to further tighten spending,” the AP reported shortly before Wolfe official took office.
“We’re entering a new chapter,” Erdman told the Rolla Daily News, adding that Wolfe had been given a “change” agenda.
But that change wasn’t always popular. One of Wolfe’s first acts was to approve a three percent tuition hike, drawing the ire of parents and students.
A few months later, Wolfe stirred anger again by shutting down the university’s highly regarded publishing house in order to save $400,000 a year. After an outcry from professors and authors across the country, however, Wolfe changed course.
The controversy was heightened by the fact that Wolfe was, at the same time, pushing for a $72 million expansion of the university’s football stadium.
Last year, the board of curators voted to extend Wolfe’s contract, praising him for his business-minded approach.
“President Wolfe has thoughtfully transformed our strategic planning process in a way that focuses our limited resources on priorities while reducing or eliminating waste and redundancies,” the board said in a statement.
This semester, however, Wolfe’s corporate cost-cutting appeared to go too far. Just a few days before the start of the semester, the university announced it was eliminating subsidies that graduate students use to pay for health insurance.
Graduate students revolted. Thousands, including Butler, protested against the cuts. They issued demands and walked out of classes. Ultimately, the university relented and restored the subsidies.
Now a similar pattern is playing out over the issue of racist incidents on campus, from African American students repeatedly being called the N-word to a swastika being smeared in feces on a dorm room wall.
Aside from his resignation, however, there is no quick fix to the mess in which Wolfe now finds himself. The university president was caught on video ignoring protesters, even as they surrounded his car during a homecoming parade on Oct. 10. It took Butler’s hunger strike for Wolfe to issue an apology on Friday — almost a month after the incident.
“I am sorry, and my apology is long overdue,” he said. “My behavior seemed like I did not care. That was not my intention. I was caught off guard in that moment. Nonetheless, had I gotten out of the car to acknowledge the students and talk with them perhaps we wouldn’t be where we are today. I am asking us to move forward in addressing the racism that exists at our university – and it does exist. Together we must rise to the challenge of combating racism, injustice, and intolerance.”
While Concerned Student 1950 has blamed Wolfe’s sluggish response, in part, on his “white male privilege,” others have pointed to his and his administration’s mechanical, money-driven approach.
“The administration bought into the corporate model of education years ago, and they largely don’t know how to even begin to have an honest dialogue about campus climate that goes beyond touting whatever new bells and whistles have been added in any given year to attract more students (new multimillion dollar Rec Center! New suite style residence halls!), all while jacking tuition up and cutting benefits like health insurance to graduate students, most of whom teach several classes for next to nothing already,” wrote one commenter.
With the football team’s boycott poised to cost the school at least $1 million, the protests are now putting the university’s finances on the line alongside its reputation.
On Monday, the board of curators could decide that’s an offense that can’t be ignored.