Confederates Defeat Vanderbilt

Appeals court says university must pay -- if it wants to change controversial name of a dormitory.
May 5, 2005

A Tennessee appeals court ruled Wednesday that Vanderbilt University may not drop "Confederate" from the name of a dormitory -- unless the university is willing to return a donation it received in 1933 at the value of the donation in today's dollars.

The court's ruling reverses a lower court's decision that allowed Vanderbilt to drop "Confederate" from the name. Students and professors at Vanderbilt objected to the name, saying that it suggested university support for slavery and was offensive to black students. Following years of discussion of the issue, Vanderbilt dropped "Confederate" from the name of "Confederate Memorial Hall" in 2002. But the Tennessee chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which made the gift in 1933 and was assured then of the name the dormitory would have, took the university to court.

The appeals court unanimously rejected Vanderbilt's argument that academic freedom gave it the right to change the name. Vanderbilt argued that the Supreme Court has given private colleges considerable latitude in their decisions. But the appeals court said that was irrelevant because the agreement to name the dormitory "Confederate Memorial Hall" was between a donor and a charitable group -- and the government never forced the gift to be accepted.

"We fail to see how the adoption of a rule allowing universities to avoid their contractual and other voluntarily assumed legal obligations whenever, in the university's opinion, those obligations have begun to impede their academic mission would advance principles of academic freedom," the court ruled. "To the contrary, allowing Vanderbilt and other academic institutions to jettison their contractual and other legal obligations so casually would seriously impair their ability to raise money in the future by entering into gift agreements such as the ones at issue here."

The appeals court refused to deal with Vanderbilt's arguments about the message the name sent to black students. "It is not within the purview of this court to resolve the larger cultural and social conflicts regarding whether and how those who fought for the Confederacy should be honored or remembered."

However, one of the judges who heard the case wrote a concurring opinion objecting to Vanderbilt's statements about the word "Confederate." Judge William B. Cain wrote that Vanderbilt has a "misperception" about the Confederacy. "A great majority of those who fought in the Confederate armies owned no slaves. Their homeland was invaded, and they rose up in defense of their homes and their farms. They fought the unequal struggle until nearly half their enlisted strength was crippled or beneath the sod. This dormitory is a memorial to them," he wrote.

If Vanderbilt wants to change the name, the court's decision said, it must repay the gift. The court rejected the idea of the Confederate group that the university be required to pay interest. The court said this wasn't appropriate because the condition of the name of the dormitory was met for decades. However, the court said that it would also be unfair for Vanderbilt to get out of its obligation by returning $50,000, since that money was much more valuable in 1933 than it is today. So Vanderbilt would have to repay $50,000, as adjusted by the Consumer Price Index in the last 72 years.

A spokesman for Vanderbilt told the Nashville Tennessean that the university was studying the decision and weighing its options. An an e-mail message on Thursday, the spokesman also said that the decision would not prevent the university from dropping "Confederate" in the way it refers to the dormitory in campus publications, maps, Web sites, and housing assignments.

The original gift from the United Daughters of the Confederacy was not to Vanderbilt but to George Peabody College of Teachers. When Peabody merged into Vanderbilt in 1979, Vanderbilt assumed control of the building and the legal responsibilities of the college. In 1989, prior to changing the name, Vanderbilt put a plaque on the building acknowledging the gift and university officials have said that the plaque will remain, even if the name of the dorm is changed. Vanderbilt also argued -- successfully in the lower court but unsuccessfully before the appeals court -- that there were questions about whether the Peabody contract was ever valid, and that if it was, its requirements had been fulfilled.


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