Columbia, Mo. • After Michael Middleton founded the Legion of Black Collegians, he personally delivered a list of race-related demands to the University of Missouri chancellor in 1969.
Some might call it fitting, then, that he take the helm of the UM system after the student group Concerned Student 1950 handed the university its list of demands for racial inclusion and shared governance.
“It is clear to me the first step is to devote attention to addressing those demands,” Middleton, 68, said Thursday at a news conference. “It is imperative to hear from all students and do everything we can to make them comfortable and safe in our community.”
The University of Missouri Board of Curators tapped Middleton, the university’s first African-American law professor, to serve as interim president after the resignation of Timothy M. Wolfe earlier this week following criticism of Wolfe’s handling of a series of racist incidents.
Middleton said Thursday that he had met with members of Concerned Student 1950 to work toward satisfying the group’s demands. He specifically noted the goal of increasing the number of faculty members of color on campus.
He urged the university community to talk about racism and racial relations.
“One of the things impeding our ability to get beyond these issues is our inability to talk about it,” Middleton said. “We have to understand our ugly history permeates everything we do at this institution and in this country. Once we get this truth on the table, we’re poised to reconcile those differences.”
On Twitter, the student group said its members “are excited for the new leadership under Interim President Middleton!”
Middleton said that for now, he was not interested in the permanent position. He currently holds the dual titles of deputy chancellor emeritus and professor emeritus of law.
A university spokesman said Middleton’s salary was still being finalized.
On Aug. 31, Middleton retired as deputy chancellor after holding that position for 17 years. Before being chosen as interim president, he had a part-time role directing inclusion, diversity and equity efforts on campus.
“Middleton is the best person to lead the system during this critical period of transition, with 30 years of leadership experience on the MU campus and past service as a civil rights attorney,” said Donald Cupps, board chair. “Mike’s outstanding managerial skills and knowledge of the UM System and its four campuses, make him the leader we need to advance our university system forward.”
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., hailed the hiring. “I believe his thoughtful and steady voice will be an asset throughout this transition,” Blunt said in a statement.
State Rep. Kip Kendrick, D-Columbia, said Middleton was “a great choice to move Mizzou forward,” adding that he was confident Middleton could facilitate difficult conversations from his new position.
Middleton earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1968 and his law degree in 1971.
During his last year as an undergraduate, Middleton and others in the Zeta Alpha chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. founded the Legion of Black Collegians.
Forty-seven years later, the group he helped found was at the center of one of the controversies leading to the vacancy in the president’s office.
In early October, members of the Black Collegians were confronted by a man at Traditions Plaza who used a racial slur — one of three high-profile incidents that brought national attention to Mizzou.
In September, student body President Payton Head said a group of men in a pickup yelled racial slurs as he walked on campus. And last month, someone drew a swastika in human feces in a residence hall bathroom.
Student anger led to a series of demonstrations and protests, including a standoff during Mizzou’s homecoming parade on Oct. 10.
Later, students confronted Wolfe outside of a Kansas City fundraiser.
A video of the confrontation shows a resigned-looking Wolfe talking to students as they prod him to give his definition of systematic oppression.
“I will give you an answer, and I’m sure it’ll be a wrong answer,” he said.
“Systematic oppression is because you don’t believe that you have the equal opportunity for success,” he added.
Wolfe’s answer was widely panned as students accused him of suggesting that oppression exists only in their minds.
He resigned Monday after one student embarked on a hunger strike and Mizzou football players pledged not to play again until Wolfe either resigned or was fired. He stepped away from a contract that paid him a $459,000 base salary plus a number of bonuses and other benefits. Wolfe did not negotiate a severance package on his way out.
The Board of Curators also announced Thursday that it was accelerating the transition to new leadership in the chancellor position at MU. R. Bowen Loftin had announced that he was to step down from the post by the end of the year.
The board of curators voted Thursday to immediately give those responsibilities to Henry “Hank” Foley, executive vice president of academic affairs, research and development, who was named interim chancellor Monday.