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A President Takes History Seriously

July 11, 2022

The Texas Historical Commission recently decided to honor J. Evetts Haley, who died in 1995, with a plaque on the campus of West Texas A&M University, where he worked for a time and was known for his studies of the region. But the marker doesn’t tell the full story.

So Walter V. Wendler, the president of West Texas A&M, had a second marker made. That one notes that when Haley ran for governor in 1956, he ran on a segregationist platform. “Those prejudices are abhorrent to West Texas A&M,” the marker reads

Inside Higher Ed asked Wendler why he had the second marker put up. His answer:

“I in turn shared [the draft for the first marker] with some members of our history faculty and they acknowledged that Haley was an important historian for our region, and we also discussed the fact he was a segregationist. Many people still held such deplorable views at the midpoint of the twentieth century. Thus we had a dilemma. Do we ignore this person and his important historical contributions, or do we acknowledge him in the fullness of his flaws?

“Some said the plaque should not be on campus at all. These are important and divergent perspectives. I believed we should present a more complete picture of history, the man, and his contributions. Who of us is without ‘sin’? What historical figure is void of mistakes, flaws, and wrong decisions, particularly when judged by history decades or even centuries later? (Forgive me for interjecting my beliefs, but as a Christian, I only know of one such person, Jesus Christ, who according to Holy Writ was also fully God.)

“Therefore, adding a current perspective on an accompanying plaque seemed a rational approach to a complex issue. Wording on the WT plaque is intended to create a more complete picture of Haley. The idea of canceling his commitment to the history of the Texas Panhandle, and its importance as a place in Texas, is counter to the careful study of our past as a means to create a better future. Such action would represent a form of timidity that teeters on the edge of the abyss of ignorance. Panhandle people are practically minded and desire facts to understand and process a complete story. It is a public debt owed to all by those engaged in higher education. The purpose of the university is to promote and nurture engaged citizenship. Such understanding may lead to progress.”

The two different plaques marking the historical importance of J. Evetts Haley on the campus of West Texas A&M.

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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