The Missouri state university system Thursday named as interim president an African-American who said he understood the complexity and nuance of the recent, racially charged campus clashes, adding that while some people will hold his race against him, it probably also played a role in his getting the job.
The interim leader, Michael A. Middleton, was an undergraduate and law school student, and later a law professor, and then an administrator at the University of Missouri, the flagship of the system.
When asked Thursday whether, in that time, he had ever felt marginalized because of his race, he said, "Every day, in all three capacities."
It is a perspective that many white people cannot comprehend, he said, adding: "I don’t blame white people who don’t understand. I blame our ugly history."
Middleton, 68, who retired last summer as deputy chancellor, replaced Timothy M. Wolfe, president of the four-university system who resigned under pressure Monday.
What followed, at a news conference on the university campus in Columbia, was Middleton, in courtly tones, offering remarkably blunt answers to reporters’ questions.
When he was asked if he was chosen, in part, because he is black, Middleton, paused, drummed his fingers and clenched his jaw.
"That’s a complex question, and it’s reflective of the institutional racism that we are trying to get beyond," he said. "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."
An activist group, Concerned Student 1950, has demanded changes at the university, including a big increase in the number of black professors and staff members, and courses for staff members and students on racial awareness and inclusion.
Noting that he had been among the students who made similar demands in 1969, Middleton said that in his years in administration, "it was extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get the institution to devote the kinds of resources necessary to have a significant impact on this problem."
Several student groups that have clashed with the administration endorsed Middleton’s appointment, but it remains to be seen what effect he will have on a campus deeply unsettled by violent threats, fear, racial tension, demonstrations, a student’s hunger strike over race relations, and related clashes over the role of free speech.
"One of the things impeding our ability to get beyond this problem is our inability to talk about it," Middleton said. "We’ve got to understand the ugly, ugly history that permeates everything we do in our institutions in this country."
Students at two of Missouri’s other state universities were arrested Wednesday, charged with threatening shooting rampages against black people through posts on the anonymous social media app Yik Yak. One of the students, Hunter M. Park, made an initial court appearance Thursday in Columbia, where a judge ordered him held in jail, rejecting a request from his lawyer to set bail.
In court papers made public Thursday, police said Park had intentionally mimicked wording that preceded a deadly shooting last month at an Oregon college that killed nine people.
One Yik Yak post Tuesday night said, "I’m going to stand my ground tomorrow and shoot every black person I see," prompting more than 100 calls to the police at the university. The same user also wrote: "Some of you are alright. Don’t go to campus tomorrow."
The second comment echoed a message posted on an anonymous online discussion board hours before the shooting Oct. 1 at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon.
"Some of you guys are alright. Don’t go to school tomorrow if you are in the northwest," it said.
There was widespread speculation that the post came from the Oregon gunman.
Park, 19, a sophomore at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, about 90 miles south of Columbia, admitted to writing the Yik Yak messages and acknowledged the link to the Oregon shooting, Officer Dustin Heckmaster of the police at the University of Missouri wrote in a statement filed in Boone County Court.
When asked what he meant by the message about not going to campus, Park replied, "I was quoting something," according to Heckmaster. "I asked if he was quoting the Umpqua shooting; he replied ‘mmhmm.’ I asked why he had quoted the phrase; Hunter replied ‘I don’t know I just . . . deep interest.’"
Park’s lawyer, Jeffrey L. Hilbrenner, declined to comment.
The other person charged with making threats, Connor Stottlemyre, 19, was arrested at Northwest Missouri State University, where he is a sophomore. A university spokesman said he was linked to a Yik Yak post that said, "I’m gonna shoot any black people tomorrow, so be ready."