The University of Missouri System Board of Curators named Mike Middleton the system’s interim president, effective immediately.
Middleton, a deputy chancellor emeritus at the University of Missouri in Columbia, worked for the school for 30 years before retiring at the end of August. That stint included 17 years as deputy chancellor.
He takes the helm of the state’s four-campus system following the Monday resignation of Tim Wolfe, who had served as UM System president since 2012. Wolfe stepped down amid growing criticism from student activists and their supporters for his handling of a string of racist incidents at MU.
“We must move forward as a community,” Middleton said at a press conference. “We must embrace these issues as they come, and they will come to define us in the future. We must tighten our focus and improve our climate on all our campuses.”
Middleton, who earned his undergraduate degree from MU in 1968 and got his law degree from the university in 1971, came back to his alma mater in 1985 after working for the federal government in Washington. He has also served as the interim vice provost for minority affairs and faculty development at the university.
“Mike 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, chair of the UM System Board of Curators, said in a press release. “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 was the third African-American student to graduate from the MU Law School, and he helped found the Legion of Black Collegians, MU’s first black student government, in 1968.
Concerned Student 1950, the student activist group that started the protests at MU, included in its list of demands that the university meet the original 1969 demands of the Legion of Black Collegians.
The interim president said his top priority is to address student concerns and make sure to communicate effectively why the university “can’t meet” some of those demands in the short term. He added that he has met with the members of Concerned Student 1950 and will continue to work with them to move forward.
The student activist group tweeted Thursday that they “are excited for the new leadership under Interim President Middleton,” and asked to have a say in who becomes the permanent president.
Middleton said he will focus on implementing the initiatives rolled out by the board of curators, including appointing chief diversity officers across the university network and increasing efforts to add more staff and faculty of color on campus.
We are excited for the new leadership under Interim President Middleton!
— ConcernedStudent1950 (@CS_1950) November 12, 2015
Reflecting on this career at MU, Middleton said there were times when he felt like “a total failure” because he was not able to convince the higher-ups at the university of the magnitude of the racial problem on campus.
“There was nothing I could do as an individual to change it,” Middleton said. “It was extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get the university to allocate resources.”
He went on to acknowledge that people in power who have never been the target of racism have a difficulty understanding the issue like those who have been.
The interim president also had a message for incoming students: “If you think you can go somewhere else, please think again. We are serious about being the university system that steps forward and deals with this problem.”