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The president of the University of Missouri indicated he had no intention of stepping down as calls for his resignation or firing grew louder Sunday over campus racial issues — the latest from the university's legislative overseer.
"It is clear to all of us that change is needed, and we appreciate the thoughtfulness and passion which have gone into the sharing of concerns," President Tim Wolfe said.
The statement came a day after the school's Legion of Black Collegians said athletes of color on the Mizzou football team wouldn't participate in any "football-related" activities" until Wolfe "resigns or is removed due to his negligence toward marginalized students' experiences."
The pressure on Wolfe was compounded Sunday afternoon when Steve Cookson, the Republican chairman of the state House Higher Education Committee, called for Wolfe to step down.
Cookson said in a statement on the Missouri political site The Missouri Times that the protests were just the latest in a string of incidents that made it clear that Wolfe "can no longer effectively lead."
"All of these problems stem from the University of Missouri system slipping behind over the last few years in everything from faculty productivity, to fiscal health of several of the colleges, to national rankings," culminating in Wolfe's "callous reaction to racial sensitivity issues," Cookson said.
The protests attracted national attention after a tweet by the Legion of Black Collegians — featuring a photo of at least 32 black men, many of them in Missouri Tigers attire — was retweeted by several members of the Missouri football team.
The university's Athletics Department said it supported the right of student-athletes to "come together with leaders from across our campus to tackle these challenging issues."
Football coach Coach Gary Pinkel also promptly expressed solidarity with his team Sunday, saying: "The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players."
Concerns about the lack of concern for offensive racial incidents on the campus of the University of Missouri have been percolating for some time. The school's 1,200-plus acre campus is located in Columbia, which is about 120 miles west of Ferguson, Missouri, where protests and riots erupted last year over the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown.
The group "Concerned Student 1950" — named for the year the university accepted its first black student — said students tried to approach Wolfe during the school's homecoming parade in early October to address "Mizzou's history of racial violence and exclusivity" but his car drove away.
On Friday, Wolfe said that he regretted his reaction because it "seemed like I did not care," according to The Associated Press.
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And last week, graduate student Jonathan Butler began a hunger strike "in opposition to having Tim Wolfe as the University of Missouri system president."
"Since Mr. Wolfe joined the UM system as president in 2012, there have been a slew of racist, sexist, homophobic, etc., incidents," Butler wrote in a letter when he started the strike on Nov. 2.
He said he would continue the strike until "Tim Wolfe is removed from office or my internal organs fail and my life is lost."
Pinkel and Missouri's athletic director, Mack Rhoades, said in a joint statement that the football team wouldn’t be practicing or participating in formal team activities Sunday because "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." They said the team said they didn’t plan to return to practice until Butler starts eating.
Shortly after the start of Butler's hunger strike, Concerned Student 1950 penned a petition to Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, and the University of Missouri System Board of Curators to remove Wolfe saying, "He does not understand systems of oppression, yet claims to care about Black students." Almost 5,500 people had signed the petition by Sunday night.
Nixon said Sunday that the student's "concerns must be addressed."
"Our colleges and universities must be havens of trust and understanding," he said in a statement.
Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, who graduated from the university, said Sunday that the school's administration needed to act.
"At this point I think it is essential that the University of Missouri Board of Curators send a clear message to the students at Mizzou that there is an unqualified commitment to address racism on campus," she said in a statement.
The Board of Curators was scheduled to meet Monday morning,
According to the school, 7 percent of the student population of more than 35,000 is black, and 3 percent is Latino. About 3 percent of the university's full-time faculty is black, and about 3 percent is Latino.
Wolfe said in his statement Sunday that the university has been working on a "systemwide diversity and inclusion strategy" that was due to be rolled out in April.
"Clearly, we are open to listening to all sides, and are confident that we can come together to improve the student experience on our campuses," he said.