…and hear the verdict. My fellow Vanderblogger Joel [del 8/29/05] notes that Vanderbilt and the United Daughers of the Confederacy have met once again in court (see the City Paper for more). At issue is Confederate Memorial Hall, a dorm on the Peabody Campus that the UDC helped fund in the 1930s. The administration and Student Government Association have long wanted to change the name to omit the word “Confederate.” The UDC has countered with a legal challenge, arguing that to do so would be a breach of their contract. It’s unclear as of now which way the court will decide, but the judges do appear to be properly considering the case as a matter of contract enforcement rather than politics.
I have no opinion about the contracts and I’m no friend of the UDC or other Confederate groups; I’m even glad to see Vanderbilt distancing itself from its genteel Southern image that I think holds it back as a university. That said, I’m opposed to the name change as being painfully superficial. Joel writes:
The UDC maddeningly argues that Vanderbilt is trying to rewrite history by removing the name. I fail to understand this argument. Has Vanderbilt stopped offering 19th-century Southern history classes? Do we no longer teach anything about the Civil War? Better yet, have we adopted the technique of the Holocaust revisionists and started claiming that the War Between the States never actually happened? How in the hell are we rewriting history here?
It’s not the history of the United States that’s at issue, but the history of Vanderbilt. It’s institutional history is inextricably tied to the Old South. If its students are as smart as they think they are, then they should be able to acknowledge that fact and reflect upon how far the place has come (and still has to go). That’s the kind of liberal attitude a university should be instilling in its students. Instead, Vanderbilt’s counsel is to “seek out what offends ye and break out the sandblasters.” That’s a terrible lesson to teach.
Let’s suppose Vanderbilt wins its case and finally alters the name. Once the controversy is forgotten, what will future students learn of the university? I envision the following dialogue:
Prospective Student: “What building is that?”
Tour Guide: “That’s Memorial Hall.”
Prospective Student: “What’s it a memorial to?”
Tour Guide: “Well, it’s not really a memorial to anything. It’s just, you know, a memorial.”
Prospective Student: “That doesn’t make a lot sense…”
Tour Guide: “Hey, did you know that Vanderbilt has more than 200 squirrels per acre?”
That uncompelling vision is, to me, the essence of Vanderbilt’s shallow reform. As an alternative, I much prefer a vision conceived by Lucius Outlaw, Professor of Philosophy and Director of the African American Studies Program. I remember him speaking about this dispute a year or two ago and saying that a wonderful ending would be for the building to remain Confederate Memorial Hall and for it to become a de facto black dormitory. Then the students could relax on the porch, waving and smiling as the Daughters of the Confederacy walk by. They might even thank the UDC for building them such nice living accomodations, relishing the irony of the situation. Such reclaiming of the past would be far richer than its obliteration.
Of course, I’d be foolish to expect a thoughtfully critical approach from Vanderbilt’s current administration — not when it’s controversy and lawsuits that bring on the attention from the press.
[Update 1/7/05: Joel provides a cogent response.]