One Way College Leaders Can Truly Stand With Charlottesville

It’s one thing for unwelcome racists to invade our campuses, quite another to have dead racists honored on them, argues Leidy Klotz.

August 17, 2017
 
 
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Statue of Robert E. Lee the day after protests in Charlottesville, Va.

I’m proud to call Charlottesville, Va., home. Our community antagonized white supremacist neo-Nazis and KKK members by undertaking a democratic process to remove hurtful monuments.

Before moving to Charlottesville, I lived in Clemson, S.C. Like Charlottesville, Clemson has a beautiful and top-notch university located in a welcoming and caring community of people who could not be more different from the white supremacists who descended on Charlottesville last weekend.

My time at Clemson can provide a lesson for higher education leaders who wish to stand with Charlottesville. Like Charlottesville, and like many other higher education institutions, Clemson and the university have hurtful memorials left over from a racist past. Not only is Clemson’s Honors College still named for pro-slavery Senator John C. Calhoun, but the most iconic building on campus, Old Main, was renamed for “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, who boasted on the floor of the U.S. Senate of killing black people. At Clemson, calls by students and faculty members for renaming have been stopped at the Board of Trustees as well as state law.

I believe the delays in renaming memorials at Clemson are wrong. I also believe the delays are for the most part well intentioned. As is now happening at institutions everywhere in the wake of last weekend’s violence in Virginia, I suspect Clemson’s Board of Trustees debated such renaming by weighing considerations like student safety and the university’s reputation. Perhaps someone even brought up the possibility that renaming buildings might attract white supremacists to campus.

Of course, no one wants neo-Nazis and the KKK to invade their campus. But higher education leaders must consider not only the white supremacists who could show up but also the students and faculty members who do not show up, or who leave, because of the unwelcoming environment that we tolerate. And higher education leaders must consider both physical and emotional safety. It’s one thing for unwelcome racists to invade our campuses, quite another to have dead racists honored on them.

So, higher education leaders, if you really want to stand with Charlottesville, rename those hurtful memorials. Do so because student leaders want us to do more. Do so because it will upset neo-Nazis and the KKK, which is always a good sign. Do so because there aren’t enough of those hateful people to go around; if we all act, they can’t focus on Charlottesville alone. And, finally, do so because it’s our role. For no one is born hateful -- it depends on their education.

Bio

Leidy Klotz is an associate professor in civil and environmental engineering and in architecture at the University of Virginia.

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