UM Systems president reacts to MU Homecoming demonstration

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COLUMBIA - UM Systems President Tim Wolfe talked to KOMU 8 News about the MU Homecoming parade incident and the racial tensions surrounding it.

During MU's Homecoming parade students wearing shirts that stated "1839 was built on my b(l)ack" locked arms and stood in front of Wolfe's car while each told their personal experiences of injustice and racism. Wolfe has received criticism from MU students and faculty for not getting out of his car or later making any public statement. 

“When they came out of the crowd with the bullhorn, they had something to say. I wanted to listen. My wife and I sat there and listened to what the protesters had to say," Wolfe said. 

Wolfe said, though he couldn't hear everything, he did learn something.

“That frustration obviously opened my mind that we need to do a better job of listening and learning, and those were the comments that I took away from that experience," Wolfe said. 

But he said his decision not to make a statement was intentional.

“Making a public statement assumes that you understand the problem. And until you understand the problem, I wouldn’t make a public statement about this or any other issue. So I’m in the fact-gathering, understanding mode," Wolfe said. 

Jonathan Butler, who was one of those ten students in the demonstration, said, "All we wanted was to get our voices heard. We’re here, we’re facing racism, we’re facing all types of discrimination and what’s going on across campus. Hear our stories and be a part of the change." 

While each demonstrator took his or or turn telling their story, the surrounding crowd grew impatient. A few community members even jumped up to block the students from Wolfe's car. Some got physical with the students, as seen in a YouTube video of the demonstration.

“I was shocked, I was hurt, I was upset. Because it was like, how dare you," Butler said. “You’re telling me, right now, I’m no longer a part of that Mizzou family."

However, there were also community members who came forward and stood with the demonstrators, like MU Assistant Communications Professor Colleen Colaner.

“It was important for me to let them know that they had an ally in the crowd. And I wanted to stand in solidarity with them so that they understood that there were people in the crowd that were listening that support them,” Colaner said. “Even if we aren’t part of the black community, it’s our duty to understand how our privilege allows us to be silent when we see things happening that is wrong.” 

The Columbia Police Department arrived as the demonstration ended, threatening the students with pepper spray and arrest.

As a bystander, Colaner said she was concerned by CPD's actions.

“We have been having a conversation as a nation and as a state about the use of force by the police. And it came to Columbia," Colaner said. 

Butler said Wolfe should have stepped in.

“He had all power in that space to do something, and that negligence just speaks volumes to where he is with students. Because he clearly doesn’t care about students if he’s going to allow those types of things to happen," Butler said.

Activist Traci Wilson-Kleekamp said, "He should really be out in front for equity. And he shouldn’t stand for anybody being in there trying to get a higher education and being in a climate where they don’t feel welcome. It looks very cowardly to hang back.” 

Wolfe said he has reached out to the demonstrators, and would like to speak with them.

“The first thing I’ll say ‘teach me.’ Tell me what’s on your mind, tell me your concerns, tell me about your frustration. Where’d it come from? Tell me. Teach me. I’m here to listen. That’s what I want to say to them," Wolfe said.

He said he is taking steps toward making MU's campus more inclusive. However, one community activist said his inaction meant more than he may realize.

Wilson-Kleekamp said demonstrations provide the community a unique opportunity to address some social issues that are often swept under the rug. 

“You want them to get passed the reactive state of ‘you shouldn’t have done that’ and ask themselves ‘well why did they do that? What is going on? What did I miss,'" Wilson-Kleekamp said. 

MU graduate student and demonstrator Jonathan Butler said, “This is my everyday lived experience. I don’t get to take off my skin at night. I don’t get to scrub it off, I don’t get to walk away from this, walk away from difficult situations. I have to live through this everyday." 

Butler said that the demonstrations will continue in order to hold MU administration accountable.

Wolfe said, "The four campuses of the University of Missouri System are known as a place that you can go and study, and get passionate about a particular topic, go on to a great career, or professional program or whatever. And it’s known because you have the best opportunity to succeed on this campus regardless of where you came from, regardless of your economic status, regardless of your color, religion, race," Wolfe said. "This is the place to come because it’s an inclusive environment that accepts different positions, backgrounds and different ideas. That’s the ultimate goal.” 

The Columbia Police Department declined KOMU's request for comment.

Since KOMU 8's interview with Wolfe, he has met with the demonstrators that go by the name #ConcernedStudent1950. One of the demonstrators wrote a letter to the UM Board of Curators stating that he will go on a hunger strike until Wolfe is fired or his organs fail. Wolfe gave KOMU the following statement on the hunger strike: 

"It is extremely concerning when any of our students puts their health and safety in harm’s way. I sincerely hope that Mr. Butler will consider a different method of advocating for this cause. I respect his right to protest and admire the courage it takes to speak up.  

 I believe that the best course of action is an ongoing dialogue about the racial climate on our four UM System campuses. Immediately after my initial meeting with the ConcernedStudent1950 group on October 26th, I invited Jonathan to meet again so we can build a deeper relationship and open a frank conversation about the group’s frustrations and experiences. I remain hopeful that they will accept my invitation.

This meeting with the ConcernedStudent1950 group is one example of our engagement at the UM System level on this complex, societal issue. I have met with our chancellors, campus diversity officers, students and faculty about the scope of the problem, so that collectively we may address these issues that are pervasive and systemic in our society. We must always continue our efforts to affect change at our UM System campuses."

Wolfe has reached out to this student to speak with him individually. KOMU 8 has attached the student's letter below. 

 [Editors Note: This story had been edited to update information]