The unrest that rocked the University of Missouri-Columbia campus last fall was part of a racial conflict that has existed in Missouri and the nation for centuries and still is evident on campuses across the country, interim president Michael Middleton said Tuesday.

Middleton also defended the firing of assistant professor Melissa Click and told the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., that he expected to be in his job until at least the end of the year, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported (http://bit.ly/28Mqnan ).

The Columbia campus is expecting a $30 million drop in tuition because of fewer freshmen enrolling this fall, said Middleton, who added that he understood why parents might hesitate to send their children there if they thought it was in "disarray."

"The fact is the University of Missouri-Columbia is not violent and not in total disarray," he said. "I am optimistic. We have been around 177 years. We have been through problems, ups and downs . We generally come back stronger."

The October and November protests, which led to the resignation of former system president Tim Wolfe and chancellor R. Bowen Loftin, were a "perfect storm" that continued longstanding racial conflict, said Middleton, an African-American who grew up in segregated Mississippi in the 1950s and 1960s.

"Missouri has been a hotbed for centuries, and it is reflected in Missourians' opinions and positions with regard to what happened at the university," said Middleton, who received his undergraduate and law degrees at the Columbia campus.

The university has progressive people who support the students and want to make changes, he added, but others believe the university is out of control.

"So you have got a variety of positions in Missouri, as I think Missouri has had since the Civil War, when brothers were fighting brothers," he said.

The interim president also defended the firing of Click after she interfered with journalists trying to cover the protests.

The American Association of University Professors placed the university on its censure list Saturday because of it, which essentially means the university is guilty of violating academic due process in firing Click.

"I thought Dr. Click lost control in a very heated situation," Middleton said, adding that her firing had nothing to do with Click's academic freedom. "The AAUP couched their sanctions in those terms. ... We will have to live with it and work to get off this censure list as soon as possible."


Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com