By Sheryl Estrada
Michael A. Middleton, a long-time familiar face on the University of Missouri campus, was appointed the interim president of the entire university system. The decision was announced at a press conference on Thursday.
Former president, Timothy M. Wolfe, resigned on Monday morning following growing protests by Black students including a hunger strike, the threat of a walkout by faculty and a boycott by the football team, all due to the lack of addressingracial issues on campus.
Middleton, who was selected by the University of Missouri Board of Curators, was deputy chancellor for 17 years. He just retired from the position on Aug. 31, holding a part-time role directing inclusion, diversity and equity efforts on campus.
During the press conference, he was asked if hisrace played a part in the Board of Curators’ decision.
“That’s a complex question, and it’s reflective of the institutional racism that we are trying to get beyond,” he responded. “I suspect that my color will be met with much criticism from parts of our community. I also suspect that my color was a factor in the judgment that I was the person, at this time, to take this position.”
Middletonwas also asked if he ever felt ostracized because of his race at the university,andhe replied,”Every day, in all three capacities.”
He added,”I don’t blame white people who don’t understand. I blame our ugly history.”
Middleton, 68, earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1968 and was the third Black student to graduate from the university’s law school in 1971. He pursued a career in civil rights law in Washington, D.C. working as a trial attorney for the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.
The attorney later became director of the Office of Systemic Programs at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and then as principal deputy assistant secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education. He was director of the St. Louis district office of EEOC before returning to MU in 1985 and began teaching at the law school.
“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,” Donald Cupps, board chair said in a statement. “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.”
Middleton Paved a Way for BlackStudents
During his last year as an undergraduate, Middleton and others in the chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. on campus founded the Legion of Black Collegians. In 1969, he personally delivered a list of race-related demands to the university’s chancellor.
The Legion of Black Collegians actually brought to the forefront racial incidents occurring on campus such as reporting thatdays before the Oct. 10 homecoming parade racial slurs were directed toward members. The same month, someone drew a swastika in human feces in a residence hall bathroom.
The protests, a boycott by the school’s Division I football and the subsequent resignation of Wolfe have garnered national attention. Many of the student groups endorsed Middleton’s appointment in hopes of moving forward amidst threats to Black students made on the Yik Yak app, and even negative fodder on social media and TV, such as presidential candidate Donald Trump blasting the protests.
“I think it’s just disgusting,” Trump said. “I think the two people who resigned are weak, ineffective people.”
But Middleton, through his personal and professional experiences, is aware of the importance of students’ voices being heard.
“We need to talk about this,” Middleton said. “We need to come together, let our guard down, sit across the table person to person and respectfully discuss these issues and move beyond.”
He added, “We’ve got to understand the ugly, ugly history that permeates everything we do in our institutions in this country.”
Middleton alsosaid he understands the widespread frustration with the university;however he is optimistic about the future.
This week, college students around the country have been voicing their opinions regarding racism on campus. For example, at Yale University thousands of students participated in a “March of Resilience” on Monday against racial insensitivity. And, on Thursday, student protestors at Ithaca Collegecalledfor their own president to step down.