How To Take Down A University President

Tim Wolfe was hired to be the president of the University of Missouri in 2012, vowing to run the university “like a tech company.”

Needless to say, that didn’t go well. Last week, a graduate student went on a hunger strike over Wolfe’s failure to address racist incidents on campus. Jonathan Butler said he wouldn’t end the strike until Wolfe was removed from office.

Then on Saturday, the Missouri football team announced that it too would strike, refusing to play its next game November 14 against Brigham Young.

Today Tim Wolfe resigned. The Post has a good assessment of the situation going forward.

There are a few reasons that the football team’s protest garnered more attention — and was probably more likely to yield results. Given that this is fundamentally a political protest, it probably won’t come as a surprise that those reasons overlap heavily with methods of leveraging political power.

First, the team is the public face of the student body. Any number of people who live in the state but don’t have relatives in the University of Missouri system likely know student-athletes by name. Butler did a good job of making his concerns known, but having students already known and respected by the community make a similar argument lowers the bar for sympathy to the cause.

Second, the team leveraged pressure on an immediate timeline. Next Saturday, the Missouri Tigers are scheduled to play the Brigham Young Cougars. As Saturday neared, the school was under increasing pressure to resolve the dispute as public attention to the conflict continued to grow. Butler’s threat was more dire, of course, but its duration was unclear.

Third, the team’s protest threatened immediate economic damage to the university. This is perhaps the biggest issue at play. A contract between Missouri and BYU obtained by the Kansas City Star reveals that cancellation on the part of the Tigers would result in a $1 million fine to be paid to BYU within 30 days of the cancellation.

Given the increasing attention being paid to racial justice issues generally, the fact that football players are more likely to be minorities, and the huge economic importance of athletics to colleges and universities, I don’t expect that this will be the last time a boycott like this happens. Or that it succeeds. The leverage is very, very strong.

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