Not just ‘symbols of the Confederacy, slavery, white supremacy’
Following the removal of historical monuments across the country and the summer violence in nearby Charlottesville, Virginia Commonwealth University has said it will audit “exclusionary” symbols and monuments on campus.
How will it evaluate what is exclusionary? The public university in Richmond has declined to specify for the past two months.
Responding to concerns about “the focus on Confederate symbolism given Richmond’s history as the capital of the Confederacy,” President Michael Rao told the community in late August he was directing his “senior leadership team” to run a “comprehensive audit” of the “statues, plaques, building and facility names and other honorific symbols.”
While he specified that “symbols of the Confederacy, slavery, [and] white supremacy” would be the target of the audit, Rao included the catchall category of “other items of an exclusionary nature.”
— Michael Rao, Ph.D. (@VCUpresident) August 24, 2017
The College Fix was referred to Michael Porter, associate vice president for public affairs, after asking Rao’s office to clarify his “exclusionary” remarks.
Porter declined to provide parameters for what VCU considers exclusionary.
He told The Fix in an email that over the next several months the school is “undertaking a considered process … to review our historical artifacts and symbols” as well as “related policies and procedures.”
The review will consult “internal and expert community resources” with a “commitment to be respectful of history,” Porter said. Asked for a more detailed timeline of the audit, Porter declined Wednesday to be more specific.
The university’s Division of Inclusive Excellence declined to tell The Fix its opinion on the audit process or extent of its involvement with the review.
The division’s communications director, Raina Fields, simply repeated what Rao had written: The review will be conducted by VCU’s “senior leadership team” in consultation with “faculty, students and community members.” She referred The Fix back to Porter.
A political science professor, Ravi Perry, told the Times-Dispatch that the revision process showed the university was committed to scrutinizing its role in white supremacy.
Perry did not respond to a Fix query about what he considers exclusionary on campus, including what names he would like removed from buildings and what artifacts he would like removed completely or moved to less prominent locations, and what role if any he would play in the process.
No moves have been made yet by the university to remove or replace symbols or monuments around campus.
Dangerous for Confederate monuments to become ‘normalized’
The university still uses its Richmond location and history as a selling point for prospective students and parents.
Its website boasts of the historical locations and monuments near the campus, including Historic Monument Avenue, which features monuments to Confederate generals and leaders such as Robert E. Lee (below).
But VCU has also touted one of its own faculty’s scholarship against Confederate monuments.
Earlier this month the public affairs division published its interview with Gabriel Reich, an associate professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning who studies “historical consciousness.”
Reich claims that monuments including Lee’s are a “rallying cry” for “white supremacists and nazis” that were originally “a political tool to make a statement about white supremacy.”
Though he trains future history teachers to have “difficult conversations” and “look at history with … an unflinching eye,” Reich told the university’s official news organ he doesn’t believe the monuments “serve that purpose.”
He said it’s dangerous to let newcomers become “normalized” to the monuments, as has happened to him since moving to Richmond.
VCU’s own students have protested the monuments. Three students were charged with felonies for wearing masks to obscure their identities – a law originally intended to unmask Ku Klux Klan members – at a “pro-Confederate rally” last month, the Times-Dispatch reported.
The students are awaiting trial and did not respond to Fix inquiries.
The university’s hometown seems more enthusiastic about contextualizing its history than erasing it.
A poll conducted by Christopher Newport University on behalf of the Times-Dispatch found that 55 percent of Richmond residents are “opposed” to removing “Confederate statues in the city,” but 61 percent support “adding historical context.”
IMAGES: Floridaman1985/Flickr, OZinOH/Flickr