Administration

As Support Grows for Ditching Confederate Statues, Colleges Weigh Their Options

August 17, 2017

Sara D. Davis, Getty Images
A statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee was defaced overnight Thursday at Duke U. Monuments on college campuses depicting Confederate figures are facing fresh scrutiny after white supremacists descended last weekend on Charlottesville, Va., ostensibly to protest the planned removal of a statue of Lee there.

A Confederate monument in Durham, N.C., hit the ground and crumpled on Monday night when a student wrapped it with a yellow strap and protesters yanked the statue from its pedestal. The chants of "No Trump! No KKK! No Fascist USA!" subsided as the crowd erupted in cheers.

The statue was one of the first Confederate monuments to fall after violence at last weekend’s white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., that left one person dead and many more injured. Two state police officers were also killed in a helicopter crash.

More than 1,500 Confederate monuments remain across the United States — some on college campuses. And as universities prepare for the fall semester, they must also grapple with a reinvigorated round of calls to bring down the monuments.

Those in favor of maintaining Confederate statues — many of which were erected immediately after Reconstruction or the during the civil-rights movement — have a powerful ally in President Trump, who has argued in favor of their preservation.

But several experts argue that the rally in Charlottesville has made it very difficult to argue that the monument fight is about "heritage not hate." White nationalists with torches marched there and chanted anti-Semitic slogans in support of the preservation of the statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy’s most famous general and a figure who is still lionized in the South.

"There is nothing surprising at all about the fact that white nationalists would rally around monuments to Confederates," said W. Fitzhugh Brundage, chairman of the history department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There are very few shrines as unambiguously representative of white privilege and white power as Confederate memorials, he said. But does the association of the monuments with white supremacy mean they should be removed?

Taking Them Down

On Sunday a Confederate monument that looms large at Chapel Hill — "Silent Sam," as it is known — was draped in a black hood as a response to the violence in Charlottesville. University officials have stepped up security around the monument as scrutiny has grown in recent years and released a joint statement on Tuesday saying that understate law, they are not allowed to remove the statue.

Just a few miles down the road, a statue of Robert E. Lee was vandalized overnight Thursday at Duke University. "Each of us deserves a voice in determining how to address the questions raised by the statues of Robert E. Lee and others, and confront the darker moments in our nation’s history," said Vincent Price, the university’s president, in a statement.

Larry Moneta, the university’s vice president for student affairs, also penned an op-ed warning students not to engage in vandalism.

The recent cases highlighted already-simmering tensions on campuses. Now institutions must consider debating whether or not to do away with the monuments to prevent additional costs or vandalism.

Mr. Brundage argues that colleges have to begin a dialogue. "Institutions that do not take some sort of step to engage in a public conversation and build some kind of campus consensus" about what to do with the monuments "may be faced with situations that they will regret," he said. The events in Durham on Monday night, he added, prove just how fragile the monuments actually are.

Some colleges are already taking steps to remove the statues. Bronx Community College, in New York, announced this week that it would remove the busts of Confederate generals from its Hall of Fame for Great Americans. "Embracing difference includes creating space where all people feel respected, welcomed, and valued," Thomas A. Isekenegbe, the college’s president, said in a statement announcing that the college would remove the statues.

Colleges should view the controversial monuments as an opportunity to promote education and dialogue, Mr. Brundage said. In some cases, where monuments are worthy of preserving, universities can move them to more appropriate educational spaces.

Preserving as History

The University of Texas at Austin removed a statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, in 2015, following student outcry. After having several campus conversations and developing a committee to examine the issue, the university decided to move the statue to the university’s historical archives instead of destroying it.

Gregory J. Vincent led the task force that examined whether or not to remove the statue. Mr. Vincent, who was the university’s vice president for diversity and community engagement, told The Chronicle that the committee researched the history of the monument, gauged the intent of the donor, and reckoned with the university’s educational responsibility.

"We felt that as an educational institution there was a strong sentiment that we should not whitewash history," he said. But the task force also recognized that by featuring the statue prominently on campus the university was honoring a man who led a "traitorous movement."

By honoring Confederate leaders, "what you’re saying is that we’re honoring people who believe in racial supremacy and the subjugation of a people," said Mr. Vincent, now president of Hobart and William Smith College. I think that’s inconsistent with the values of the university."

Don Carleton, executive director of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, the Texas archive that now houses the statue, agreed that colleges should be thinking about whether or not their monuments are consistent with institutional values.

Further, the conversation about the removal of Confederate monuments has been confused, he said. "It has nothing to do with rewriting history. Moving a statue is just not rewriting history." Those who built the monuments were trying to rewrite the story of the Civil War, he argued.

Instead of maintaining the statues to honor those they represent, he said, they should be preserved for the art that they are — but they should be housed in a place reflecting that significance, such as the museum.

As the fall semester gets underway, colleges will certainly be thinking deeply about how to deal with these reminders of the racial divide in America. "This is one of the pressing issues that college presidents will have to face, and we’ll have to balance free expression that is so core to a liberal-arts education," Mr. Vincent said.

But, he added, "at the same time there is a real threat to safety, and we’ll have to make sure both issues are appropriately balanced."

Clara Turnage contributed to this report.

Adam Harris is a breaking-news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHSays or email him at adam.harris@chronicle.com.