Power of the Purse Meets Power of the People at Mizzou


Kelsey Knorp
National Beat Reporter

Weeks of protest at the University of Missouri came to a head last week when both the university’s president and campus chancellor publicly resigned their posts. Both resignations followed allegations by students and faculty that the administration has repeatedly failed to address instances of racial bigotry on campus.

A turning point in the activists’ efforts came when over 30 of the school’s black football players called a strike on Sat., Nov. 7, a week before the team was scheduled to play against Brigham Young University on its home turf. The decision was made in solidarity with graduate student Jonathan Butler, a Concerned Student 1950 member who had initiated a hunger strike almost a week before in an effort to oust president Tim Wolfe.

By Sunday, all 124 Tigers players, approximately half of whom are black, had joined the resistance movement and earned the support of head coach Gary Pinkel, who told The New York Times he was moved to action by his team’s concern for a fellow student. The next day, Wolfe and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin announced their respective resignations.

More powerful than its compassion, however, is the football team’s financial sway as a member of the Southeastern Conference. Though Butler’s efforts could have cost him his life, the players’ strike touted a more lucrative price tag: $1 million in damages owed to BYU in the event of a Missouri forfeit, according to a contract between the two schools. The agreement demands the lump sum to account for losses related to public relations, missed broadcast opportunities, lost ticket revenue and other projected financial setbacks.

The Tigers secured a 20-16 win against BYU last Saturday, in the wake of Wolfe’s and Loftin’s decisions to step down. But the movement’s victory speaks to larger objectives, namely retaliation against slurs levied earlier in the semester against black Missouri Students’ Association president Payton Head and, on a separate occasion, a group of black students rehearsing for a school play. Another notable incident in the past few months featured an anonymous depiction of a swastika left on one of the university’s walls.

Missouri has been no stranger to racial tension over the years, but disproportionate campus demographics have historically prevented minorities from taking the upper hand. Just seven percent of the university’s student body is black (compared with a 77 percent white proportion), though a striking 65 percent of its football team is made up of black athletes. In wielding this ethnic concentration against the administration, athletic scholarships be damned, the Tigers players’ strike seems to have tapped into an yet-underutilized well of campus activism.

Resistance to the Missouri administration began in August, when research and graduate teaching assistants organized in protest of the university’s decision to cease funding their health insurance plans. During the time officials took to eventually reverse that decision, opponents formed a coalition with activists already protesting institutional racism on the campus, a collaboration that would later lend strength to the current movement.

Activist efforts have sparked some controversy over press freedom, after Professor Melissa Click of the school’s communication department was caught on film requesting backup to remove student photographer Tim Tai from a protest in the university quad. Protesters hoped to expel media from the area to create a “safe space” for advocates during their occupation. Click has since relinquished her courtesy appointment within Missouri’s journalism school, though her general employment status with the university remains unclear.

Interim University President Michael Middleton seems to be approaching the governing challenge with optimism. “The time has come for us to acknowledge and address our daunting challenges, and return to our relentless adherence to the University of Missouri’s mission to discover, disseminate, preserve and apply knowledge,” he said.