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Names, Symbols and Race

August 4, 2014

To most University of Mississippi students and alumni, calling the institution "Ole Miss" is just natural. It's what people say. University email addresses are @olemiss.edu, not @umiss.edu. But not everyone likes the name.

The university's announcement on Friday that, as part of a review of race relations at the university, it would encourage "appropriate" use of the term, won praise from some quarters but plenty of criticism. So did a series of other announcements by the university, which is hoping to change its association with symbols of the Confederacy. Reports commissioned by the university (which influenced Friday's announcement) angered some students and alumni -- particularly those with ties to the Greek system -- by discussing the perceptions of some black students and alumni who are far more critical of university traditions and life at the university than are white students and alumni.

One of the reports, discussing a student focus group, linked the Greek system and the symbols of Southern history. "A number of students believe that the traditional fraternities and sororities serve as attractors, incubators, and protectors for students wedded to the symbols and beliefs of the South’s racist past. With few exceptions, the majority of the group, white and black, nodded in agreement. The African American students shared examples of indignities they have been subject to or witness of that involved the fraternities and sororities.

"Every black student in the room said that they had been called the 'N-Word' at least once on campus," the report says. "From rejection of people of color into the organizations, chanting 'The South will rise again' at sporting events, to hurling racist and sexual epithets at innocent passersby, the Greeks are viewed as a major problem."

The university announcement didn't use language anything like that, but talked about making the university more inclusive. The university announced a series of recommendations that it was endorsing:

  • Create a new vice chancellor's position for diversity and inclusion.
  • Develop "a set of standards for diversity and engagement."
  • Deal "squarely" with issues of race. Provide more "context" in various ways for people to understand the history of race relations at the university.
  • Change the names of some facilities to draw attention to black Mississippi figures. For example, a road will be renamed to honor Lee (Chucky) Mullins, a black football player who was paralyzed and later died.
  • Change the name of "Confederate Drive" to "Chapel Lane."
  • Seeking "appropriate" use of the Ole Miss name.

A statement from Chancellor Dan Jones said that "we will need to continue a dialogue on race at our university. Our unique history regarding race provides not only a larger responsibility for providing leadership on race issues, but also a large opportunity – one we should and will embrace.”

The University of Mississippi was segregated for decades and admitted James Meredith as its first black student in 1962 only after multiple court orders and federal intervention -- and days of riots by white people opposed to integration. A statue of Meredith at the university -- seen as a symbol of the institution acknowledging its history -- was vandalized with a noose this year, and three fraternity members were accused of being responsible.

This is not the first time the university has tried to limit its association with Confederate symbols. In the 1990s, amid concerns that waving the Confederate flag at football games was discouraging black athletes from enrolling, the university adopted new rules designed to bar the flag (although the rules were not explicit about the Confederate flag to avoid violations of the First Amendment). A federal appeals court in 1990 upheld the rules (which barred all large flags or flags on sticks from football games) and the Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal. While the university won the legal ruling, Confederate symbols (many times unofficially) continued to be associated with the university.

The Ole Miss Name

The current review is broader than many of the previous efforts, which focused on specific practices such as flying Confederate flags. The university is now discussing diversity broadly, and history and symbols and names that have created strong emotional connections for many students and alumni. The Ole Miss name is a particularly contentious issue.

Colleges, Race and History

The university statement said this on the Ole Miss name: "UM’s longstanding nickname is beloved by the vast majority of its students and alumni. But a few, especially some university faculty, are uncomfortable with it. Some don’t want it used at all and some simply don’t want it used within the academic context." The statement noted that the university did a national study of people's responses to the name, and found that most people view it only as "an affectionate name for the university" and that "a very small percentage of respondents associate the university, either as 'Ole Miss' or 'University of Mississippi,' with negative race issues."

The statement said that "both names will be used in appropriate contexts going forward, with particular emphasis going to 'Ole Miss' in athletics and as a representation of the university’s spirit."

The report commissioned by the chancellor went further in characterizing discontent with the breadth of the use of Ole Miss. The report was by Edward L. Ayers, the noted Civil War historian who is president of the University of Richmond, and Christy Coleman, president of the American Civil War Center in Richmond. They noted the way the city of Richmond has overcome some tensions about its history not by trying to cover it up, but by promoting better understanding of history, and they suggest the university do the same. The university has many symbols, they note in their report, but little context is provided, and it is badly needed.

"Such work would provide a more coherent narrative than currently exists, in which several isolated monuments, including the Confederate Memorial and the James Meredith monument, seem to stand at polar opposites, with vast blank spaces of time and struggle missing," they write. "People are not told in any meaningful way about the world of slavery in which the University began, the decision for secession that shaped everything that followed, or the segregation that dominated life in the South for a century after the Civil War."

Of the Ole Miss name, they note that some but not all who use the name are aware of its antebellum past (a name slaves would use for the woman married to the plantation owner). And while the report agrees that many students and alumni love the name, it adds that they see the nickname as a symbol that holds the university back. "Building a dialect version of 'old' into an institution that is built to prepare for the future strikes them as inherently problematic," the report says. It also notes that many are reluctant to speak out publicly for fear of offending those who revere the name.

The report adds: "A nickname cannot carry the weight and gravity of the state’s name or convey the seriousness of purpose that an important institution of research, health care, and social mission deserves. In interactions involving grant proposals, job applications, or letters of recommendation in particular, we were told, faculty, staff, and students chafe at having the email address read 'olemiss.edu.' They think the University should identify itself as 'umiss.edu' in such contexts. This does seem worth considering for official university business and the university might well consider making 'Mississippi' or 'The University of Mississippi' the default. The nickname could be reserved, as it is for almost all other universities, for athletics and alumni relations."

While that report and the university statement didn't in fact ban the use of Ole Miss, asking only for consideration of the name's use, many alumni took to Twitter to condemn Chancellor Jones for a ban he didn't in fact issue.

A typical comment: "DAN JONES is a MORON and should be fired immediately !! He is CLUELESS and an embarrassment to MY OLE MISS !!!" Notably, some of the comments that praised Jones on Twitter for raising these issues expressed doubt that he could change some parts of the university's culture, such as the name. Said another tweet: "If you think the name 'Ole Miss' is going anywhere, you are misinformed. BUT, what Dan Jones IS doing is overdue and courageous."

Erasing the Past?

An open letter to the chancellor circulating, particularly among supporters of the Greek system at Mississippi, takes on many of the ideas in the new policies and in the reports commissioned by the university.

"Does changing our email address URL from “olemiss.edu” to “umiss.edu,” promote diversity?," the letter says. "Or does it suggest that we are a school that is ashamed of itself and ashamed of its past? While the University of Mississippi has a history that we may not be proud of as modern Americans, the best approach is not to do what we can to erase the past. While it may seem like a noble idea to restrict 'Ole Miss; to the athletic field, the fact is that I will continue to refer to the school as Ole Miss no matter what. Does this make me a racist? Or does this make me a student that is fond of the nickname (or simply fond of fewer syllables)?"

But the letter took particular exception to the statements about the Greek system. "[T]he comments about the Greek system are the most offensive. Chancellor Jones. I understand that these comments are not necessarily your opinion, and may not even be the opinion of many. As an Ole Miss student ... and an active member of my sorority, being referred to as a girl 'wedded to the symbols and beliefs of the South’s racist past' simply for being a member of a Greek organization is both offensive, false, and, to be frank, it is hypocritical of the University of Mississippi to post such comments in a report trying to promote diversity. Because of the actions of three fraternity members last semester, the entire Greek community is now subjected to the scolding looks of faculty, administration, and every non-Greek student. How does that promote diversity?"

And the letter also expressed fear about creating a new senior position in the administration to focus on diversity, saying that "by trying to promote racial diversity, you are creating new problems." By creating the new position, the letter says, "you are suggesting to the rest of the world that Ole Miss is inherently a racist school, and her students are incapable of change on their own."

While various parties are debating the new effort on race at Mississippi, one observer on Twitter wrote that the chancellor, accused of denigrating tradition, might not be, at least in all respects. The comment: "Dan Jones is, in fact, preserving the most time-honored tradition at Ole Miss: arguing over tradition."

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