Civil Liberties

University of Missouri President Just Resigned: What It Means for the Campus Speech Wars

No competent educator can give students the false sense of security they desire.


University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe is resigning from office. A black student had launched a hunger strike in protest of Wolfe's failure to make the campus a "safe space," and the football team had decided to boycott games until the strike's goal was met.

According to NBC, Wolfe's resignation is effective immediately:

The president of the University of Missouri announced Monday he was resigning amid mounting criticism of his handling of racism on campus.

President Tim Wolfe said his resignation is effective immediately.

"It's the right thing to do," Wolfe said.

The move came during a special meeting of the Board of Curators, the university system's nine-person governing body.

Black student groups and activists have been protesting for more than two months about a spate of racist incidents on campus.

What were these racist incidents? Someone shouted a slur at the campus's black student government president. Someone smeared feces in the shape of a swastika on the wall of a residence hall. (In a letter announcing his hunger strike, student Jonathan Butler also cited "graduate students being robbed of their health insurance, and Planned Parenthood services being stripped from campus" among the reasons for Wolfe to resign, although these concerns don't really strike me as being tied to race.)

I can understand why students were upset about these things. And if they want to call on Wolfe to do more, they are well within their rights. Maybe Wolfe was doing a bad job, although it's difficult to say what he should have done differently; is there any policy a university could adopt that would prevent idiots from occasionally yelling immature, insulting things at people on the street?

This controversy, as with the current upheaval at Yale, suggests aggrieved students most desperately want administrators to acknowledge their pain and tell them they have a right to live free of emotional turmoil. But no competent administrator can provide them with this false sense of security, since the proper role of a university education is to help students overcome (rather than sidestep) challenges.

In any case, Wolfe's resignation also means that hyper-offended students are not as powerless as skeptics of the campus speech wars claim they are. I'm often told by these skeptics that the actions of outraged students are harmless because they never amount to anything, but this development at Missouri is a significant contrary example.

I would be disheartened, but not at all surprised, to see more professors and administrators driven from campus for the crime of failing to erect suitable safe spaces.