Black administrator named Missouri system’s interim head

Michael Middleton takes his seat at a press conference after the University of Missouri Board of Curators named him interim president of the university system, Thursday. (Daniel Brenner/Columbia Daily Tribune via AP)

COLUMBIA, Mo. — One of the University of Missouri’s first black law school graduates was appointed Thursday to lead the four-campus system through a tumultuous period of racial unrest, drawing praise from students who said he’s well-equipped to confront the problems they felt his predecessor largely ignored.

Michael Middleton, 68, has spent 30 years at the university — as an undergraduate, law student, faculty member and finally, administrator. At a news conference announcing his appointment as the university system’s interim president, he vowed to take on the racial problems that inspired the protests that helped force Monday’s abrupt resignation of President Tim Wolfe and another top administrator.

“I have seen the system grow and excel over the years and I look with great optimism in the future,” said Middleton.

He said the university “has faced its share of troubling incidents and we recognize that we must move forward as a community. We must embrace these issues as they come, and they will come to define us in the future.”

MU Policy Now, a student group made up of graduate and professional students, had been pushing for the president’s role to go to Middleton, who retired as deputy chancellor of the Columbia campus in August and had been made a deputy chancellor emeritus. He had been working part-time to assist Loftin design a plan to increase inclusion and diversity on campus.

“Given the recent turmoil, Deputy Chancellor Emeritus Middleton is a strong transitional figure,” the group wrote in a letter of endorsement posted on its Facebook page and sent to curators. Several student organizations signed the recommendation letter, including the Legion of Black Collegians.

Second-year law student Christopher Hamm, president of the school’s Black Law Students Association, applauded the appointment.

“There is nobody better suited to lead this university than Mike Middleton,” said Hamm, 22, of Cincinnati, Ohio.

Ben Trachtenberg, an associate law professor who chairs the Columbia campus’ Faculty Council on University Policy, also praised it, calling Middleton “a very smart guy who knows a ton about the university.”

“I have nothing but good things to say about Mike,” Trachtenberg told The Associated Press.

Middleton takes over at a turbulent time for the university. Black student groups had been calling for change over the administration’s handling of racial issues and were given a boost last weekend when 30 black football players vowed not to take part in team activities until Wolfe was gone.

Wolfe and the chancellor of the Columbia campus, R. Bowen Loftin, abruptly resigned on Monday. On Thursday, the board said Loftin’s resignation timeline had been accelerated and that his interim replacement, Hank Foley, had already assumed that role. Loftin will take a different position at the university.

Meanwhile Thursday, authorities announced that a third Missouri man had been charged for allegedly posting anonymous online threats to attack college campuses.

Hunter M. Park, a 19-year-old student at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla who was the first of the three to be charged, appeared in court Thursday via a video feed from a Columbia jail, where he was ordered held without bond. He is charged with making a terroristic threat, which is punishable by up to seven years in prison.

Park is accused of making threatening posts that showed up Tuesday on the anonymous location-based messaging app Yik Yak and were concerning enough that some classes were canceled and some Columbia businesses closed for the day.

One of the threats said: “Some of you are alright. Don’t go to campus tomorrow” — a warning campus police Officer Dustin Heckmaster said in a probable cause statement that he recognized as one that appeared ahead of last month’s Oregon college shooting involving a gunman who killed nine people and himself.

Heckmaster wrote that after tracking the postings to Park’s cellphone number, he confronted the sophomore computer science major in his Rolla dorm room and that Park admitted that the posts were “inappropriate.” He said he asked if the threats amounted to “saber rattling,” and Park responded, “pretty much.”

When questioned specifically what he meant by the phrase, “Some of you are alright. Don’t go to campus tomorrow,” Park “smiled and stated, ‘I was quoting something,'” Heckmaster wrote. When pressed whether it was mimicking a posting that preceded the Oregon attack, Park replied, “Mmhmm.”

When asked why, Park said, “I don’t know. I just … deep interest,” Heckmaster wrote.

A message left on Park’s mother’s cellphone was not returned, and there was no response Wednesday to knocks on the door of the family’s home in the affluent St. Louis suburb of Lake St. Louis.

A second student was arrested at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville for allegedly posting a threat on Yik Yak that read, “I’m gonna shoot any black people tomorrow, so be ready.” Nodaway County Prosecutor Robert Rice on Thursday filed one misdemeanor and one felony count of making a terrorist threat against Connor Stottlemyre, a freshman at the school in Maryville. Online court records did not list an attorney for him.

Prosecutors also charged another 19-year-old, Tyler Bradenberg of St. Louis, with a felony count of making a terrorist threat. An arrest warrant has been issued for him. Authorities say Brandenberg posted “I’m gonna shoot up this school” on Yik Yak on Wednesday. It was apparently aimed at the Missouri University of Science & Technology in Rolla, where he studied chemical engineering for a semester last fall.

Phelps County prosecuting attorney Brendon Fox said he didn’t know if Bradenberg had an attorney, and he doesn’t have a listed phone number.

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