As the University has re-examined its historical landscape over the past couple years, the administration and Board of Visitors have decided to make several changes regarding the memorialization of certain individuals and groups on Grounds. Some of these revisions include the construction of the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, the removal of the Confederate plaques on the Rotunda and the re-dedications of Yen House and Pinn Hall. These decisions figure into a much larger national discussion on the memorialization of certain figures and institutions with complex legacies — and the lack of recognition for others.
Attention has now shifted to Alderman Library, where an anonymous person or persons recently left fliers inside the building featuring a quote from its namesake and first president of the University — Edwin Alderman. The quote, sourced from his Annual Report of the Commissioner of Education written during his time as president of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, asserted that “It is settled, I believe, that this white man who has shown himself so full of courage and force, shall rule in the South because he is fittest to rule.” The fliers sought to support the claim that the University should change the name.
According to President Jim Ryan in an interview with The Cavalier Daily, the University administration is “in the process of thinking about a number of names.” Regardless, as the University community considers changes to its historical landscape, it must approach this issue with perspective and intellectual integrity. Decisions to change building names and take down statues — while in the short term represent efforts to affirm the principles we adhere to today — raise further doubts concerning the sustainability of such practices and often provide overly simple answers to complex questions. Unfortunately, those calling for subtractions to the historical landscape often fail to ask themselves those questions.
Do calls to rename buildings indicate a growing inability to simultaneously entertain two conflicting ideas? Is it wrong to celebrate the accomplishments and contributions of flawed individuals? Since every individual is flawed, is it wrong to celebrate the accomplishments or contributions of anyone?
Of course, not all sins are equal. Alderman’s support of white supremacy and eugenics represent not only racism, but ethical intellectual failings — with his failure to more closely examine the “academic” reasoning behind such attitudes being at odds with his position as an educator.
When we recognize an individual by dedicating a building in his or her name, do we do so in recognition of his of her flaws or contributions? I would argue the latter rather than the former. Despite Thomas Jefferson’s ownership of slaves and other failings, the University maintains his images on Grounds and respects his legacy as a leader, political philosopher and University founder. Jefferson — although flawed — made significant contributions to our community and country — without which our nation would not be as free as it is today. We can appreciate his contributions and learn from his shortcomings.
Another question that members of the University community advocating for sweeping changes to the historical landscape have yet to ask is how future generations will evaluate our own legacy. We can’t know for certain which aspects of 2019 will earn the disdain of our descendants. We do know, however, that we can look back to virtually every past decade and century and find something that we today reject. It would be arrogant to assume that future generations will not do the same to us. Are we to expect our leaders’ and peers’ names to be similarly erased from history? I suspect our collective toleration of abortion, the death penatly, mass incarceration and enviornmental degradation will not age well.
The City of Charlottesville presents a relevant case study to this issue. After renaming Lee and Jackson Parks to Emancipation and Justice parks respectively, public outcry condemning the decisions as disrespectful led City Council to rename them a second time to Market Street and Court Square Parks. Perhaps the only way to appease the “social justice” minded would be to abandon the practice of honoring individuals whose flaws will inevitably disqualify them from deserving recognition.
The Student Council organized a Committee on Renaming, Recontextualization and Removal to explore the historical landscape on Grounds. Given Student Council’s asinine past attempts to weigh in on complex issues, I do not have high hopes for the upcoming report.
While the administration and Board of Visitors have made errors in judgement regarding the University’s historical landscape, students must demand that both approach this debate prudently. My frustration with how the University community has approached this issue in the past is not necessarily that some have called for change — but that the thinking behind those calls was and still is incomplete. As we move forward with these discussions we need to approach this issue with more humility and honesty, and refrain from cheapening this debate by using it as a proxy for other ideological and political battles.
Tom Ferguson is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.