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How football and a hunger strike forced the University of Missouri president to resign

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

University of Missouri system president Tim Wolfe announced Monday morning he would step down, bowing to demands from students angry about his response to racist incidents on campus this fall.

Wolfe's announcement came on the heels of a declaration Saturday night from 32 black football players, backed by their coaches and team, that they would not play or participate in football activities until Wolfe resigned:

Jonathan Butler, a graduate student at the University of Missouri, has been on a hunger strike since November 2 to demand Wolfe's resignation.

Here's a brief account of what happened at the University of Missouri and why it's become a national story.

What happened at the University of Missouri

The calls for the University of Missouri's president, Tim Wolfe, to resign are mostly about how he's handled incidents of reported racism at the university.

In September, a group of men in a pickup truck yelled a racial slur at the student body president, Payton Head, who is black, while he was walking down a local street. The next morning Head wrote a Facebook post about the experience, and about other ways discrimination is still present at the university:

WARNING: EXPLICIT LANGUAGE: I just want to say how extremely hurt and disappointed I am. Last night as I walking...

Posted by Payton Head on Saturday, September 12, 2015

Then on October 5, a man allegedly yelled racial slurs at the Legion of Black Collegians, a student group, while they were rehearsing a homecoming performance. The university's chancellor, R. Bowen Loftin, the head of the main Columbia campus, issued an angry response: "Let's end hatred and racism at Mizzou," he said. "We're part of the same family. You don't hate your family." He also announced the entire university would be required to take online diversity training.

Unsatisfied, a group of black student leaders decided to confront Wolfe, the president of the University of Missouri's system of four campuses, during the homecoming parade in Columbia.

Each student used the name "Concerned Student 1950," referring to the year black students were first accepted to the university. They blocked Wolfe's car and the street for about 15 minutes. During this, his car bumped one of the protestors, Jonathan Butler.

After the parade, the students released a list of demands, including that the university develop a curriculum of racial awareness and inclusion and that Wolfe send them a handwritten apology, "acknowledge his white male privilege," and "recognize that systems of oppression exist."

Wolfe met with protestors on October 27 but didn't satisfy their demands. On October 24, a swastika made from human feces was smeared on the wall of a communal bathroom in a new dorm, seen as a symbol of ongoing discrimination at the university. Students also reported racist posts on Yik Yak, the anonymous message-sharing app, pertaining to the racial disturbances.

On November 2, Butler began a hunger strike, saying he would continue it until Wolfe is removed from office. The football players went on strike in support of Butler.

Wolfe has also faced other controversies this year. Under pressure from state legislators, the university stripped admitting privileges at its hospital from the only doctor in Columbia providing abortions and stopped medical students from training at Planned Parenthood. And the university tried to stop subsidizing health insurance for graduate students with only a day's notice, but later reversed its decision.

In an emotional statement Monday, Wolfe said he hoped his resignation would help the university to heal. "We forced individuals like Jonathan Butler to take immediate action and unusual steps to effect change," he said. "This is not, I repeat, not, the way change should come about."

Missouri isn't the only university where racial tensions are coming to the forefront

Black students are underrepresented at the University of Missouri — 7 percent of its students are black in a state that's 12 percent black. And they are not only upset about the incidents this year. In 2011, a statue on campus was sprayed with racist graffiti; in 2010, cotton balls were strewn outside the Black Culture Center.

The university is only two hours away from Ferguson, Missouri, and students, including Butler, traveled there for the protests after police shot Michael Brown in August 2014.

Missouri isn't the only place where students are speaking up about racism on campus. As Butler was beginning his hunger strike, students at Yale were outraged about a faculty member implying that they should ignore offensive Halloween costumes, and about a fraternity party where black women were allegedly turned away.

That the two stories happened the same weekend is mostly a coincidence of timing. But students of color are getting more attention as they demand more of university administration, and their success in forcing Wolfe's resignation is nearly unprecedented since the student activism of the late 1960s.