A combination of criticism and praise knocked on the Lyceum’s door after the chancellor announced plans for a contextualizing plaque to be placed in front of the 1906 Confederate solider statue in the Circle. More than two weeks have passed, the plaque has been officially placed, but the knocking hasn’t quieted.
It may be even louder now.
In response to the feedback regarding the plaque, Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter sent an email to the campus community Tuesday morning explaining the latest updates on the plaque debate.
In the email, Vitter described the “vibrant process” the University is undergoing; “a continuing journey to recognize our University’s history, learn from it, and be a national model for moving forward.”
Members of the UM NAACP who released a public statement opposing the original published version of the plaque language met with Vitter, the contextualization committee, representatives of the Critical Race Studies Group and Vice Chancellor for research and sponsored programs Alice Clark Thursday evening.
“Discussion happened,” UM NAACP President Buka Okoye said. “It wasn’t a thing where we were going to go in there and just think the world was going to change. We went in there and came out, and I remember saying that it was a fruitful conversation, but I would love to hear them say either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ that we’re going to change it.”
During the discussion, Vitter said the majority of responses received were positive.
“You don’t ever make a decision because the majority says it is cool,” Okoye said. “We’re the minority, so if the majority always says something, we will be marginalized out of this community.”
Okoye said the contextualization committee seemed to be on the UM NAACP side and admitted there were revisions that needed to be made to the contextualization process and could have been done better, but Vitter said he was focused on moving forward.
“My issue with that is you don’t move forward when you have a glaring problem right here,” Okoye said. “What you do is solve the problem that is right here, and then you move forward. When you move forward without solving the problem, you have the issues we have today on campus; monuments being put up, buildings named after people and no one speaking about these because they’re problems that are left there and then people move forward.”
Okoye said the UM NAACP is pinpointing major efforts on the plaque because it sets the tone for future contextualization efforts.
“If we allow this problem to kind of just slip away and slip out of our hands, then expect the rest of these contextualization process to be the exact same way,” Okoye said.
In his email, Vitter announced the establishment of the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on History and Contextualization, which will work on future contextualization projects like the ones former Chancellor Dan Jones had outlined in his diversity plan in 2014.
The committee will be an expansion of the original four-member committee appointed by Morris Stocks when he was interim chancellor. The current four are Assistant to the Chancellor for multicultural affairs Donald Cole, African American studies Director Charles Ross, Professor Emeritus of history David Sansing and retired Chief of Staff to the Chancellor Andy Mullins. Three of which were involved in the enhanced climate and respect committee created after the 2014 James Meredith statue noose incident.
Vitter said the committee will not include any student members.
With the addition of new members to the permanent contextualization committee, Vitter said the focus will remain on expertise, competency and the ability to bring a whole perspective of the University in a collaborative way.
“That’s going to be the focus of what determines who goes on the committee – it’s not a political process,” Vitter said. “We’re here to get experts in their field who really know the subject matter and know the environment and can work together to do what’s in the best interest of the University.”
Ensuring transparency throughout the process and taking the community’s input into consideration when making decisions is important, Vitter said.
“We’re never going to get full agreement, but it will have reflected the complete sense of what people want to contribute,” Vitter said. “We have experts on the committee, historians, people that have been involved in the Civil Rights movement, people who have been here through the years, through the progression of ways that the University has taken to recognize what has happened, and they’re going to incorporate that in the best way that they can using their best judgment. They’re on the committee because we respect their expertise and their judgement.”
The community can submit their input through April 8, then the committee will take the responses into consideration and decide what to do next.
“The committee has expressed an interest to re-look at all of the input and then decide ‘Should it be changed’ and if so, ‘How?’” Vitter said. “Given all the work that went into it, it’s unlikely it’s going to change in a dramatic way, but that’s up to the committee.”
Charles Ross, African American studies director and historian, is one of the four men Stocks appointed to the contextualization committee in the summer of 2015.
“We want to try to get things right,” Ross said. “This is an ongoing process, and we’re going to try and move in a manner in which we’ll meet on a regular basis. We’ll have other committee members, and we want to make sure we try to take on these things and be as thorough as possible.”
He said the language on the plaque is accurate and contextualization language of any kind regarding a historical structure or individual will raise arguments on all sides because of the variety of what could be incorporated.
“We basically came from different perspectives in terms of our expertise and backgrounds and what we thought would be language for this particular plaque,” Ross said. “I would say there was discussion, there were varying opinions. Individuals contributed and helped edit, all of us as a committee, and that’s the final version of what we came up with.
Major criticisms of the plaque included the language chosen being written in a way so as to compromise and not say anything that would receive too much backlash.
“Whether or not we had a preconceived idea to have a happy medium, I don’t know if that was our objective at the beginning,” Ross said. “I think that we tried to contextualize the statue. That was our charge, so that’s what we attempted to do.”
Ross joined the University faculty in August of 1995 and said he has seen the University make a tremendous amount of progress in particular areas. In the two decades Ross has been at the University, it slowly progressed to be more inclusive and diverse.
Faculty and students have become more diverse in population, the Confederate flag and Colonel Reb have been removed from sporting events and the University ceased flying the state flag because it contains the Confederate battle emblem. In the same manner, Ross said he also experienced obstacles, like when students wrapped a noose around the neck of the the James Meredith statue.
Ross said he is hopeful for more progress to be made and obstacles overcome.
“We, maybe more so than many other institutions in the Deep South, have made a concerted effort to try and look at ourself very critically, to work on those things we can,” Ross said. “There are some other things we need to continue to try to work on, but we’ve clearly made a certain amount of progress.”
– Lana Ferguson