Why This Black Student Is on Hunger Strike to Get a Missouri Colleges President Fired


Thursday marked the fourth day of Jonathan Butler's hunger strike. In a letter sent to school system administrators and published on Twitter Monday morning, the University of Missouri-Columbia graduate student outlined his demands in stark terms:

"I will be embarking on an indefinite hunger strike in opposition to having Tim Wolfe as the University of Missouri system president," Butler, 25, wrote. "I will not consume any food or nutritional sustenance at the expense of my health until either Tim Wolfe is removed from office or my internal organs fail and my life is lost."

Butler's protest has drawn a groundswell of support over the past two days, and even prompted a response from Wolfe's office. So why is he doing it? For answers, we must examine what's been happening at MU over the past three months.

Jeff Roberson/AP

Who is Tim Wolfe? Timothy M. Wolfe has served as president of the four University of Missouri colleges since February 2012. Calls for his removal have become a rallying point for black campus activists of late, for a number of reasons.

According to allegations made in Butler's letter and a series of recent protests, Wolfe has systematically failed to combat racist incidents at or near the Columbia campus. He has also shown a considerable lack of understanding and initiative around the challenges facing black students and others that, according to protesters, makes him ultimately unfit to keep his job.

In response, Butler is refusing to eat or drink anything but water until Wolfe is removed. When asked how he was responding to the food deprivation so far, Butler had a simple answer: "I'm hungry."

No fewer than three racist incidents have taken place at MU within the last 90 days. The first incident outlined in Butler's letter happened in September, when Mizzou student government president Payton Head, who is black, was repeatedly called a "nigger" by a group of white men in a pickup truck as he was walking down the street near campus.

The second came in October, when a white student approached 11 members of the Legion of Black Collegians — a governing body for black students at Mizzou — during homecoming week and called them "niggers," while a campus security officer stood by and allegedly did nothing. (The student has since been moved from campus, according to a statement from the Chancellor's office.) 

A few days later, student demonstrators covered a statue of Thomas Jefferson with notes bearing words like "racist," "rapist" and "hypocrite" in protest. Another activist group called Concerned Student 1950 (a reference to the year the first black student was admitted to Mizzou) disrupted a homecoming parade and blocked Wolfe's car as he drove in the procession. 

The third incident is perhaps the most outlandish. On Oct. 24, students at a campus residence hall found a swastika drawn in human feces on a wall inside their building. The perpetrator still has not been identified. On a campus that is 77% white and 7% black, it has proven discouraging for some that one solution has been presented — schoolwide mandatory diversity training, implemented by University Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin, who is white.

Butler says this is far from sufficient. "This program itself is not nearly enough," Butler said Wednesday. "It was very impromptu, not well thought-out or strategic." He added that protesters asked Wolfe for a public apology regarding earlier incidents in October — as outlined in a list of demands submitted by Concerned Student 1950 — but the president has not done so more than three weeks later.

As a result, tensions remain high. The Maneater, MU's independent student newspaper, reported that Wolfe's car bumped into one of the protesters during the Oct. 10 demonstration, and that the president did not acknowledge it until weeks later. In a meeting held with protesters on Oct. 26, which was 16 days after the fact, Wolfe acknowledged he had not planned to reach out to them at first, and was "not completely" aware of the systemic challenges facing black students, according to a meeting recap provided to Mic by Concerned Student 1950.

To Wolfe's claims, the group had this to say:

"Not understanding these systems of oppression therefore renders [Wolfe] incapable of effectively performing his core duties. Reflecting on his answers from our meeting, Concerned Student 1950 upholds our prior assertion that Wolfe is not an effective nor properly qualified individual for the position of [UM] system president."

Wolfe has since spoken publicly on the matter — including in a heated press event Tuesday — and responded to news of Butler's hunger strike in a statement published on the University of Missouri System's website: 

"It is very concerning to me when any of our students' wellbeing is in jeopardy, and I am especially concerned about the health and safety of MU student Jonathan Butler," Wolfe wrote. "Jonathan is a valued and effective voice in our struggle to combat racial injustice."

However: Missing from the statement is any explanation for why Wolfe took so long to address Concerned Student 1950's grievances in the first place, Butler said. It also lacks solutions. "It was clearly a statement written up by his staff," he said. "It continues to prove how reactionary and lackluster this administration is, how much they don't care or understand the seriousness of whats going on." 

Wolfe's office did not respond to Mic's request for comment before publication. Even as he is roped into confronting racism on his campuses, the president still hasn't addressed the other items in Butler's letter from Monday — most notably, those concerning the fate of MU students more broadly.

"I'm trying not to say the 'h-word." — Jonathan Butler

In September, for instance, the University of Missouri chose to discontinue its relationship with Planned Parenthood. The initial arrangement allowed the health provider to perform medical abortions at a clinic in Columbia under permission from MU's hospital (state law requires abortion providers to have clinical privileges at a hospital). But these privileges will no longer be granted through the university system as of Dec. 1, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

In August, weeks before school started, the university announced it would no longer provide subsidies to help graduate students pay for health insurance. The Affordable Care Act does not allow employers to give employees money specifically to purchase their own health care, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, and according to the university, grad students are classified as employees by the Internal Revenue Service.

L.G. Patterson/AP

The proliferation of these incidents has reached a boiling point for many MU students. Some are speaking out in support of Concerned Student 1950, while others are camping out on the campus quad until Wolfe is dismissed. 

In the meantime, Butler is getting hungrier. "I'm trying not to say the 'h-word,'" he said Wednesday. "But I'm hungry. Physically, I'm drained and exhausted. It's been more than 49 hours now. I've been losing my balance the last several hours, and I have pain in my kidney and lower back. My body is not responding well, but that's normal. I'm still focused on class, still reading my Bible. I still need to operate in my role in the MU community."

Hunger strikes have been used as a method of political protest for centuries, and over the past 100 years have drawn public attention to a variety of political causes — from imperialism to workers rights to conditions at prisons and detention facilities. Whether Butler's will have its desired affect is to be seen. But he said that, even if Wolfe resigns, he will not be satisfied until broader changes take place:

"He needs to be removed by the Board of Curators," he said. "But more importantly, there needs to be a culture change, and a conversation around shared governance and appointing someone competent [to the office of president]. Otherwise, they could just replace him with someone like-minded. The goal is not just about removing him. It's about fixing a system that is very corrupt."

Correction: Nov. 9, 2015

Nov. 7, 2015, 8:56 p.m.: This article has been updated.

Nov. 9, 2015, 11:47 a.m: Tim Wolfe has resigned as UM system president.