As campuses begin to tear down Confederate symbols, leaders weigh donor, student interests
Flagships in Mississippi and Texas hope to move 'from commemoration to education,' adding context while preserving history
Updated August 23 8:45 a.m.
Over the past few days, there has been a renewed discussion about Confederate monuments on campus, sparked by the violent protests around the University of Virginia the weekend of August 12 over plans to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from a city park.
University of Texas at Austin President Greg Fenves had already overseen an effort to move statues of Robert E. Lee and Woodrow Wilson to a center for American history on campus, but Monday saw the overnight removal of four remaining statues from the campus' main mall.
"The University of Texas at Austin is a public educational and research institution, first and foremost. The historical and cultural significance of the Confederate statues on our campus — and the connections that individuals have with them — are severely compromised by what they symbolize," he said in an open letter to campus stakeholders. "Erected during the period of Jim Crow laws and segregation, the statues represent the subjugation of African Americans. That remains true today for white supremacists who use them to symbolize hatred and bigotry."
The action was a continuation of efforts which began in 2015 with the convening of a task force to discuss what to do with these symbols on campus. And Texas isn't the only Southern flagship grappling with these questions.
The shooting of nine parishoners at Emanuel AME Church by a white supremacist in Charleston, SC in June 2015 added to an already tense racial climate stoked by seemingly never-ending reports of African-American citizens, many youth, killed at the hands of police officers around the country.
That fall, protests broke out on campuses from Missouri to New Jersey and numerous other states, largely centered around the idea of a need for higher ed to do more to be inclusive of and welcoming to students of color. Common demands included the creation of various ethnic studies programs and the hiring of black faculty and administrators — and the removal of statues and renaming of buildings which honored Confederate generals, known slave-holders or others deemed to have dedicated their lives to promoting the systemic racism which students were seeing manifested in the events of the day.
In 2016, University of Mississippi Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter set out to “offer more history, putting the past into context” and to do so “without attempts to erase history, even some difficult history,” based on recommendations from a committee established by Vitter to improve campus climate around diversity and inclusion.
Recently, Vitter announced that as part of that effort, several antebellum sites on the Oxford campus will be marked with a plaque contextualizing the history of those sites, and one building — named after former Mississippi Governor James K. Vardaman, whom the committee deemed to have “actively promoted some morally odious practice, or dedicated much of [his life] to upholding that practice” — will be renamed.
On the day of the July 6 announcement, Vitter told the Daily Journal, “Throughout this process, the university has sought to listen and engage in constructive and transparent conversations with all university stakeholders.”
“In the past year, the product of the [committee] has been enriched and informed by the hundreds of individuals who provided feedback in person, through online web forms, and through individual letters, emails and calls. I am confident that our decisions with regard to these two supplemental items will be equally enhanced by public input.”
For the University of Mississippi, it was important to make sure the effort was framed in an academic context. At the University of Texas at Austin, which recently went through its own process of self-discovery and reconciliation with its decision to remove a statue of Jefferson Davis on campus, only to return it earlier this year to be housed in an on-campus museum, it was equally important to university administrators to seize the opportunity to promote dialogue and learning.
“I think one of the things that we really did was give an accurate history about why these statues were erected” in the first place, said UT Vice President for Diversity and Community Engagement Gregory Vincent, who said providing an “accurate history” is “something more nuanced than” simply putting something into context. “And I think it’s more than just a compromise, I think it’s a very effective way to deal with changing political times.”
Balancing competing interests
Many campus administrators were forced to look inward, often struggling to reconcile the idea of honoring the wishes of campus benefactors while balancing the demands of an increasingly minority-majority on campus and the realities of declining enrollment.
"If you make a donation at UT, we’re not going to just change the purpose, but at the same time, [we] understand that there are changes in society and the way that we view things," Vincent said.
However, he continued, "The most important thing is for [college administrators] to listen to the students" and "involve constituent groups both on and off campus" in any major decision impacting the campus.
In many cases, however, the decision is bigger than just one campus. In Alabama, for example, Governor Kay Ivey recently signed a bill passed by the legislature prohibiting the "relocation, removal, alteration, renaming or other disturbance of any architecturally significant building, memorial building, memorial street or monument located on public property which has been in place for 40 or more years." And similar legislation was introduced in Louisiana, even as New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu oversaw the removal of statues of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and B.G.T. Beauregard from public spaces in New Orleans.
An appellate judge in Tennessee prohibited Vanderbilt University from removing the word "Confederate" from one of its residence halls, saying the name was tied to an 83-year old donation. Vanderbilt opted to return the donation at its 2016 value and proceed with the name change, a decision which many institutions may be unwilling or unable to make. University of Alabama officials declined to comment for this article, but such actions taken by the legislature take decisions regarding the removal of statues or the renaming of buildings out of the hands of college administrators. Even at UT Austin, the decision to move one statue required a judge's blessing.
"Process matters," Vincent said. "We collected feedback in several different ways — online, via a telephone line, where we actually called people back, if they wanted to be called back, and then we also had two public forums, where we had a process where people signed up to be heard," he said.
Ultimately, a compromise was reached. The Jefferson Davis statue would be moved to the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History on UT's campus, where it would be contextualized with signage which explained his relationship to the development of the region under the headline "From Commemoration to Education," which sits in a bigger "Exploring the American South" exhibit. The statues memorializing Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston and Postmaster General of the Confederacy John H. Reagan remain on the Main Mall of the campus.
That is the difference between being an administrator of an academic institution and being the mayor of a city, Vincent said:
"And even those who may have disagreed with the decision [in the end], what they felt was they had the opportunity to be heard," Vincent said. "We are an educational institution," he said, so it's critical "to not erase that history but to" embrace a teachable moment and "meet the donors’ intent, because that was also important, but also to put it in an accurate historic context."
And at a place like Texas, part of that context is realizing that one of the university's former regents and an individual who donated large sums of land and money to establish much of the current campus, Maj. George Washington Littlefield, was also an officer in the Confederate Army. But just as important as making an increasingly diverse student population feel welcome on campus is not attempting to alter history and act like these individuals and their legacies did not exist.
"I do think there’s a place for those kind of memorials that give accurate history," Vincent said.
Freedom of expression vs. safe spaces on campus
Michael Poliakoff is the president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, and a former college administrator. The organization recently released a report advocating for the inclusion of U.S. history as a graduation requirement for students in higher education. To him, just like to administrators in Texas and Mississippi, the debate over statues and other symbols on campus presents an opportunity to educate, rather than eradicate those individuals from campus.
"Presidents need to start the conversation around the absolute urgency of freedom of expression, freedom of advocacy and the absolute necessity" of those freedoms, he said. "Academic freedom and freedom of expression are really the oxygen of the liberal arts ... and the absence of such freedom will be the" downfall of the institution, he said. "It's the opposite of progress."
Poliakoff believes that institutions of learning should always "err on the side of the absolute freedom of the exchange of ideas," even at the expense of civility. But it is the lack of civility which led to the protests in the first place, as students and administrators of color on campus increase in numbers and begin expressing their concerns as well.
Vincent said it is important for leaders to "be intentional" and "make a decision and be clear about it" to allow the campus community an opportunity to learn from the conversation.
"The University of Texas at Austin has a duty to preserve and study history," Fenves acknowledged. "But our duty also compels us to acknowledge that those parts of our history that run counter to the university’s core values, the values of our state and the enduring values of our nation do not belong on pedestals in the heart of the Forty Acres."
"We do not choose our history, but we choose what we honor and celebrate on our campus," he concluded, reaffirming the university's "recommitment to an open, positive and inclusive learning environment for all."
Follow Autumn A. Arnett on Twitter