UT Takes on Confederate Statues

Task force will prepare list of options

UT's Jeff Davis statue
UT's Jeff Davis statue (Photo by Jana Birchum)

In June, the horrific massacre of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., by a white supremacist reignited the national debate over the Confederacy and its legacy. Shortly after that, a petition with over 3,000 signatures urged UT President Gregory Fenves to remove the campus' statue honoring Jefferson Davis.

On June 23, Fenves, who began as UT president just weeks before on June 3, announced the creation of a 12-member task force to "provide a range of options for [Fenves] to review" regarding the future of the Confederate statues on campus. (On that same day, some of the South Mall's Confederate statues were graffitied with the words "Black Lives Matter.")

While the Confederate statues have long been a source of controversy, Dr. Gregory J. Vincent, chair of the task force as well as the university's vice president for diversity and community engagement, told the Chronicle that the tragedy in South Carolina, which only stopped flying the Confederate flag after outcry over the Charleston massacre, "served as a catalyst" for the issue.

The second and final forum for comments on the UT statues was held on July 15. Now, after soliciting input from the community, the task force will prepare an array of options, detailing the pros and cons of each. The report, which will be available to the public, will be presented on Aug. 1 to Fenves, who will then make a decision, most likely by the end of the summer.

Multiple members of the task force emphasized that it's not their job to make a specific recommendation on how to deal with the Confederate statues on campus. Instead, the task force's goal is to present a list of various options in a way that's "as comprehensive and deliberative as possible," according to Vincent. He said that the decision will be up to Fenves, and that the regents won't play a role.

Vincent told the Chronicle that the task force has received over 3,000 comments in total. According to The Dallas Morning News, about a third of the feedback came from students, about a third from alumni, with the remaining coming from faculty, staff, and community members.

About 45 people spoke at the second forum. While more speakers supported keeping the statues in place than had at the previous forum, supporters of removal seemed to be the majority at both forums. Notably, however, the majority of those directly connected to the community – current students and faculty in particular – spoke in support of removal; on the other hand, among those opposed to moving the statues, most weren't currently students or faculty – which student government vice president Rohit Mandalapu said was "interesting."

Vincent recognized that there's "passion on both sides" of the issue – but that might be an understatement.

For example, Greg Manning, the first speaker at the forum, compared those in support of removing the statues to the Taliban, arguing that the "attempt to wipe away a part of our culture and country" is "cultural genocide." UT's Multicultural Engagement Center live-tweeted the event, posting a reference to this statement heard at the meeting: "All Southerners identify more with Robert E. Lee than the Al Sharptons of the jihadist North."

On the other side of the debate, Edwin Dorn, a professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, noted that Davis "was a slave owner, a traitor, and a failure at the very thing for which he is best known, president of the Confederate States." He said that, as a student in the Sixties, the statues "conveyed what many of my fellow students and professors probably were thinking: 'You are not welcome here.'" Acknowledging that "We cannot change history, but we should strive to give a proper accounting of it," Dorn argued that "Jefferson Davis deserves a place in history, but not a place of honor."

Similarly, UT history student Emma Steiner said, "It is frankly ludicrous that black students have to walk every day past the statue of a man who considered them subhuman." UT student Mukund Rathi emphatically stated, "They [the statues] are wrong. They are racist. They don't need to be put in a museum because they will still be wrong and racist. They need to be destroyed."

As the Chronicle previously reported (see "Written in Stone," May 29), former UT presidents Bill Powers and Larry Faulkner both organized committees to explore removing the statues, but neither president took any further action. However, given the significant student support and unprecedented national attention to the issue, it's difficult to imagine that Fenves will leave the statues exactly as they are. Vincent did note that, unlike the Faulkner task force which dealt with "racial respect and fairness" more generally, this task force is focused specifically on the Confederate statues on campus.

While Fenves will likely have a wide variety of options to consider, Don Carleton, the executive director of UT's Briscoe Center for American History, told the Austin American-Statesman that "If the statues are going to be moved, and that's an 'if,' and university administrators felt the Briscoe Center was the best place for them, we would do everything we could to accommodate them." He stressed that "I'm not speaking for the university. I'm just telling you this as a historian."

In the end, Vincent doesn't want to predict anything. Regardless of how the statues are eventually addressed, Fenves has already pledged to work on UT's diversity, something that needs to be addressed holistically, Vincent said.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

University of Texas, Gregory Fenves, Gregory Vincent, Jefferson Davis, Confederate monuments, Confederacy, Charleston, South Carolina

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