Why wasn't race a priority before things unraveled at Mizzou?

Students blocked a car carrying former University of Missouri system president Tim Wolfe during Mizzou's homecoming parade on Oct. 10, 2015. Weeks later, Wolfe resigned.  SUSANNAH LOHR | ST. LOUIS PUBLIC RADIO

This week’s show started with a simple question we could not get out of our heads as we followed the recent shakeups at University of Missouri Columbia.

We’re referring to, of course, the wave of protests over racial incidents on MU’s campus and subsequent resignation of Tim Wolfe who stepped down on Nov. 9 from his post as university system president following a student’s hunger strike and the threat of a boycott by the football team.

One of the flash points this fall was a confrontation Wolfe had with black students outside a fundraiser in Kansas City.

The students asked Wolfe to define “systematic oppression.” He stumbled through the answer.

"I will give you an answer and I'm sure it will be a wrong answer," he said. The students pressed him and he eventually said: "Systematic oppression is because you don't believe that you have the equal opportunity for success."

We couldn’t help wondering:

Why was it so hard for Wolfe — the president of a top tier university system — to answer that question? Hadn’t anyone asked him about race and race relations before he took the job?

In this week's show, we went in search of answers. The first thing we found?

Race relations were an afterthought during Wolfe's selection process. In fact, it never came up, according to a person who interviewed Wolfe four years ago.

Wayne Goode, who was on the board of curators at the time, said officials assumed the businessman was attuned to race relations and would be adept at handling them.

Race wasn't part of the equation, despite the fact that generations of black students have been targets of discrimination on Mizzou's campus.

Most recently, black students — including the student body president — reported having racial slurs called at them. Someone drew a swastika on a bathroom wall using human feces.   

Incidents like these are nothing new, according to several black alumni we interviewed.

Shawn Taylor, who went to Mizzou in the 1980s, said the recent events unlocked painful memories of her own college experience.

She and other alums said their time at MU was inundated with instances of racism that often garnered an apathetic response from those in charge.

Saint Louis University history professor Stefan Bradley, who got his Ph.D from Mizzou, said it’s almost seems “unconscionable” that diversity issues weren’t a big part of the conversation given this history.

Experts say this points to a larger problem with higher education systems in general.

Raymond Cotton, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who negotiates contracts between college presidents and university boards, said officials are usually looking for someone who can raise money.

Issues like diversity and race aren’t normally top of mind in leadership searches, he said.

But that may be changing because of what happened at Mizzou, Bradley and Cotton said.

Since Wolfe’s resignation from the UM system, there’s been a wave of activism about race on college campuses around the country.

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This report includes sources from our Public Insight Network. Learn more about the network and how you can become a source  here.