As anger rose at the University of Missouri in early November over the university’s lethargic response to a series of racist incidents, waves of protest from all directions hit the email inbox of system president Timothy M. Wolfe.
“My younger son, a freshman in high school, has been quite focused on attending one of the power journalism/communications schools in the country with Mizzou, Syracuse & Northwestern topping the list,” Byron Willis, a Union Pacific railroad executive, wrote Wolfe on Nov. 8. The boy “understands that being born to a white mother and a black father makes him a young black man in society’s eyes and right now, your university setting doesn’t appear to be sensitive to the concerns of those students.”
Wolfe and other administrators were shaken by the flood of messages from concerned parents and skittish donors, some of whom were angry that the college seemed to tolerate racism — others adamant that campus officials should not kowtow to the young protesters.
Wolfe forwarded the email to University of Missouri Curator David L. Steward, co-founder of St. Louis-based World Wide Technology, the only black curator at the time.
“These are very difficult times and I will need your support and advice more than ever,” he wrote.
As the demands grew for Wolfe to step down, there were many emails calling for him to stand firm.
“Millions of people are watching this situation,” Judi Borgo, of Atlanta, wrote in an email forwarded to Wolfe on the morning of Nov. 9, the day he would resign. “This gentleman appears to have the courage to stand up to bullies. His resignation could start a domino effect, and this would be devastating for our nation.”
The emails were revealed in a cache of nearly 8,000 pages obtained last week by the Post-Dispatch through the Missouri Sunshine Law. They show another dimension to the anger and discord on display as protesters occupied the campus quad to demand the ouster of Wolfe.
‘People we are losing’
The emails shed light on efforts by Wolfe to shore up support for himself, particularly among African-Americans, in the days leading up to his resignation.
They also show he worked with Mizzou Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin and public relations staffers to craft statements designed to quell campus anger by admitting mistakes and promising change through new initiatives.
The emails also reveal a massive divide in public opinion after football coach Gary Pinkel supported the decision of some players to boycott football-related activities until Wolfe left office. Some football fans derided Pinkel as a coward; others praised him for showing solidarity with his players.
In one email, the mother of a Mizzou junior wrote that she was “shocked at the complete lack of leadership that’s become apparent.”
“We’re confident that we’ve raised tolerant, respectful citizens of the world and have taught them that the way to effect change is NOT by resorting to the type of mob rule that’s become apparent over the past few days,” she wrote.
It was too late for her son to transfer, she said, but “our two younger children (11th grade & 9th grade) have also observed the events of this week and, at this point, have all but eliminated Mizzou from their college list.”
Ellen De Graffenreid, the university system’s vice chancellor for marketing and communications, forwarded the email to a group of university officials that included Loftin with the lament: “This is pretty representative of the middle of the road people we are losing.”
While Wolfe was dealing with the fallout from the racist incidents, Loftin, the leader of the Columbia campus, was fighting a series of his own battles.
Observers inside the university believe he’d effectively sidestepped taking blame for the racial tension on campus through his public relations prowess and people skills.
One example of that comes from one of the defining moments of last fall’s protests — Oct. 10 when protesters blocked a car Wolfe was riding in during Mizzou’s homecoming parade.
Protesters largely point to Wolfe’s refusal to engage with students as a sign of his indifference. Some say that was the moment he became the focus of the protests.
Meanwhile, shortly after the event, a pastor emailed Loftin to talk about Wolfe’s not getting out of his car.
“From what I’m hearing, the focus has shifted off of you and toward Wolfe,” the Rev. Carl W. Kenney II wrote. “I’m glad to hear that.”
In his response, Loftin appears to take a slight dig at Wolfe.
“I really expected that they would stop the parade by getting in front of the wagon I was riding in,” Loftin wrote. “I was prepared to speak to them.”
But Loftin’s rapport with students and community members didn’t always translate.
In less than two years at Mizzou, Loftin managed to make enemies out of graduate assistants, full-time faculty and deans, many of whom worked behind the scenes to get him fired.
Faculty groups were especially upset when Patrick Delafontaine, the medical school dean, abruptly resigned in September, presumably over clashes with Loftin.
In a letter to the curators, the medical school’s Faculty Affairs Council said the dean’s departure would harm the school’s “national reputation … negatively impacting both institutional confidence and faculty morale.”
Delafontaine’s departure also caused waves outside the university.
Edward Adelstein, a deputy medical examiner in Boone County, wrote to the curators informing them of his intentions to persuade a donor to rescind a gift to the university.
“I would greatly appreciate it if you would quickly reinstate Dr. Delafontaine, neutralize Wolfe and Loftin and let the Dean become the Dean,” Adelstein wrote.
Loftin also took heat in September for the university’s decision to discontinue a type of clinical privilege that allowed a Planned Parenthood doctor to perform certain abortions at a Columbia clinic. Emails show that Loftin was getting pummeled by people on both sides of the issue.
The president of “Missouri Lawyers for Life” wrote a letter accusing Loftin of allowing Mizzou to break a law that forbids public funds to be used for abortions.
“The university, under your leadership has not only flouted the spirit and letter of the law, but still attempts to maneuver around it,” wrote David C. Drury.
In an opposing letter addressed to the curators, a Mizzou alum suggests Loftin too easily surrendered on the issue.
“I very much hope you are able to reverse your position on this, honor your contract with Planned Parenthood, and continue being a bastion for academic excellence,” Michelle Bonebrake wrote.
Perhaps the most commanding criticism of Loftin came from all nine of Mizzou’s sitting deans, who called for his resignation for creating a toxic environment “through threat, fear and intimidation.”
In a twist, many of the controversial decisions credited to Loftin have since been reversed.
Health insurance that had been cut to graduate assistants has been extended; Mizzou has partially restored ties to Planned Parenthood; and Delafontaine, the medical school dean, was reinstated in February.
Even with Wolfe gone and Loftin out as chancellor, the university continues to feel the reverberations of last fall’s turmoil. An anticipated drop in enrollment is being blamed, at least partially, on last year’s unrest. And school leaders report that Mizzou has lost about $2 million in pledged donations in the last several months.
The possibility of losing financial support was a recurring theme in emails examined by the Post-Dispatch — including one sent to a university fundraiser and forwarded to Loftin on the morning of Nov. 9.
“Due to the campus unrest Jill and I will be postponing any decision on our donation,” wrote Jim Stone, a 1974 Mizzou alumnus who works in the financial service industry in Denver. “I’m terribly embarrassed by this whole situation. It’s put Mizzou in the headlines for the wrong reasons”
Later that same day, Wolfe resigned and Loftin had been stripped of his title as chancellor.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story mischaracterized the recipient of the email from Jim Stone. It was sent to a university fundraiser, who forwarded it to Loftin.