Students protest Jefferson statues on campuses with sticky notes

Thomas Jefferson statue at the College of William and Mary, November 2015

Thomas Jefferson statue at the College of William and Mary, November 2015

This is so 2015:  According to Inside Higher Ed“At both the University of Missouri at Columbia and the College of William & Mary, critics have been placing yellow sticky notes on [Thomas] Jefferson statues, labeling him — among other things — ‘rapist’ and ‘racist.'”  

Polite, inoffensive, non-vandalizing sticky notes with words on them, and still the internet right wing is in a predictable lather.  A William and Mary spokesperson comments, “‘A university setting is the very place where civil conversations about difficult and important issues should occur. Nondestructive sticky notes are a form of expression compatible with our tradition of free expression.'”

Tell me again who’s against liberty of speech and expression, friends?  The IHE article offers some interesting perspectives from different historians and Jefferson biographers–check them out.

As for me, permit me to quote William Lloyd Garrison at length about so-called “Founding Father” worship once again when asked by his son for his thoughts on the upcoming 1876 centennial of American Independence:

Nevertheless, as to my “Centennial Reflections,” as this nation has been the guiltiest of all the nations on the earth since its independence of Great Britain, and as there is no end to the “gush” and “glorification” about its centennial career–the disposition to hide or overlook its criminality being well-nigh universal–I think they were specially called for, so as to rebuke all such blatant folly, and to induce sober reflection.  Too long have “our Revolutionary Fathers” been held up as the noblest of patriots and the truest friends of liberty.  They were too cowardly and too selfish to adhere to the principles they laid down, and, as time-servers and compromisers, they entailed upon their posterity as great a curse as could be inflicted upon any people; and I trust no child of mine will ever fail to recognize their exceeding blameworthiness, or consider a reference to it ill-timed when they are presented for the admiration of the world.

To paraphrase a quotation from old whatsisname:  “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the Post-Its of patriots & tyrants. They are its natural manure.”

25 thoughts on “Students protest Jefferson statues on campuses with sticky notes

  1. “Time-servers” was a specific and an intendingly devastating criticism, too, in 18th century polemic tradition, beyond what might be apparent today from the seeming inertness of the language. The subjects would have recognized themselves as having been stuck with something more pointed than simply sticky. If there is any iron content in statues like this, ‘fridge magnets would be a good way of lengthening the utility of the paper notes.

    c.f. also the front page article in the NY Times today about the ruckus at Princeton over Wilson. Scooped, it should be said, by this blog, not much more than a day or two ago.

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    • Great idea on the fridge magnets as vehicles for speech!

      I hope the campus archivist is taking good photos for posterity, before the book-burning, statue-melting, ComSymp campus radicals get their way and purge Jefferson from every space, place, book, and utterance on these campuses!

      And if you think I’m being hyperbolic, I refer you to the comments on the article at Inside Higher Ed. As you can see, we need a new term for Godwin’s Law when commenters avoid the Holocaust and the Nazis and instead focus their panic on the Cultural Revolution, Red China, and ComSymps like me.

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  2. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on students who wish to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from the School of Public and International Policy and the Wilson residential college? Is it going a step too far? Or is it appropriate action? Are discussion of the racist, sexist, violent pasts of our “founders” sufficient? Do we recognize they were flawed men, and some women, and move on? I agree with what you say here, I just wonder what is the end–removing the Thomas Jefferson statues along with the Jefferson Davis statues? Or is continued conversation and recognition enough?

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    • I think it’s up to the students on these campuses to decide. If Jeff Davis’s time has finally gone, maybe Wilson “I just love me my Birth of a Nation!” to go, too.

      The conversation about the appropriateness of honoring and commemorating Wilson and Jefferson is really good. There is no reason to worry about any re-writing of the history books to exclude Jefferson or Wilson that will ever happen, so why not talk about whose histories are commemorated and honored on campus?

      And yes, I’m fully aware of the irony of a professional historian opening the door to ditching commemorations and honors for Wilson, the one and only professional historian who ever became president. (And that’s probably a good thing.)

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      • I agree with most of what you say, Historiann, but I think the ultimate decisions belong not “to the students” but to the universities and colleges, including students and (last but not least) faculty. If having a statue of Thomas Jefferson on campus or having an institution named “Calhoun College” is a kind of communication, it is the university that is the author of that communication.

        Parenthetically, I never knew that Calhoun College was named after John C. Calhoun until recently.

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      • I think you’re right, EngLitProf: I would even add that alumni should be consulted as well, but yes: universities are complex & have many interested parties. But, I still think that the students’ voices should probably be listened to above all. They live on campus, even if they don’t *literally* live on campus. Current students spend most of their waking hours there, whereas alums only show up one weekend a year and campus lives mostly in their memories, and we faculty show up only 2-3 days a week and tend to stick close to our offices and classrooms & so we don’t move through space like students do, and must.

        If a significant portion of them find spaces and places on campus uncomfortable, or alienating, then that should be a real concern.

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      • There’s one constituency not mentioned, Prof. H.: Donors.

        Y’know, the ones who like naming buildings and programs, in the first place.

        A huge consideration, that probably has development officers quaking in their boots, is the potential for present students to erase what past donors have asked for regarding naming opportunities. That isn’t just responding to present views on distasteful past actions — there’s cash money on the line.

        I daresay that development interests would much rather persuade like-minded donors to throw a few bucks toward endowments allowing expansion of teaching a fuller view of history, than taking a name off of any part of the institution. Think of the stationery costs, alone….

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  3. So some people have their knickers in a twist over post-it notes?

    In the October 1956 Hungarian uprising the first order of business was to pull down the Stalin statue next to Hero’s Square in Budapest and haul it to the scrapyard. The Hungarian Communists got the message and didn’t dare put it back up again after the Red Army retook the city in November.

    Post-it notes are the height of the civility. They might even represent excessive deference to authority on the part of the students at William and Mary and Missouri.

    Not that I would condone vandalism, but if the post it notes don’t provoke some reflection I am sure there is a would be Gustav Courbet in the art department at one of these universities who knows what to do with an oxyacetylene torch and the PTO winch on a pick up truck.

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  4. About 20 years ago my college banned frats from their houses, and one charming student took a conveniently parked backhoe and pulled down the campus statue of the Founding Father who gave our college his name, if not his actual physical presence. There was a quiet fuss at the time, but the admin was all about appeasing the angry white boys. No one DREAMED of accusing a drunk white kid of being a ComSymp or other traitor! I can only imagine what would have happened if a black kid had done the damage.

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  5. BREAKING NEWS: I’m going to have to change my opinion about TJ. Ben Carson has reminded me that TJ “tried to craft our Constitution in a way that it would control people’s national tendencies and control the natural growth of the government.”

    Except no, he didn’t; he was in France. Also: TJ was an ANTI-Federalist, dig? As in, AGAINST the U.S. Constitution of 1787 as written because it didn’t sufficiently protect individual and states’ rights.

    All in all, not as big of a mistake as “the pyramids were built to store grain” theory. But still: a big mistake.

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  6. Historiann, I clicked on the links above at the part about “the internet right wing” being “in a predicable lather,” and while I agree that a lot of right-wingers are in a lather (mixed metaphor?), they don’t seem to be in much a lather about the *methods* that people have chosen to express their criticisms of Jefferson, namely, “[n]on-destructive sticky notes” placed on metal statues. You write “Tell me again who’s against liberty of speech and expression,” but the right-wingers are voicing scorn for the messages conveyed by the expression (by sticky notes, petitions), and they seem to care little about the methods of expression, one or two references to “vandalism” aside.

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    • That’s right–it doesn’t matter if the protesters are using sticky notes or spray paint. The righties are irritated at all that anyone dares question the righteousness of TJ being honored on their campus, hence my question “tell me again. . .” I’m sorry if I gave you the impression that it was the means and not the message that irked the right wing; I’m the one who was pointing out how modest and relatively polite the protesters seem to be.

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  7. Post-its are being put to all kinds of good uses this week. After someone put black tape over the portraits (framed photos, really) of black professors at Harvard Law, students responded by putting post-its describing their positive experiences with those professors around the frames: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/21/opinion/a-lesson-at-harvard-law.html .

    Also, Pres. Eisgruber of Princeton has addressed the Wilson issue, among others, in a letter to students, staff, and alums (https://www.princeton.edu/main/news/archive/S44/82/14K15 ). The relevant passage on Wilson:

    One of the most sensitive and controversial issues pertains to Woodrow Wilson’s legacy on the campus. As every Princetonian knows, Wilson left a lasting imprint on this University and this campus, and while much of his record had a very positive impact on the shaping of modern Princeton, his record on race is disturbing. As a University we have to be open to thoughtful re-examination of our own history, and I believe it is appropriate to engage our community in a careful exploration of this legacy. Since the Board of Trustees has authority over how the University recognizes Wilson, I have asked the Board to develop a process to consider this issue, and the Board has agreed to do so. The Board will form a subcommittee to collect information about Wilson’s record and impact from a wide array of perspectives and constituencies. This information will include a range of scholarly understandings of Wilson. Toward this end, the Board will solicit letters from experts familiar with Wilson, and it will make those letters public. The Board will also establish a vehicle to allow alumni, faculty, students, and staff to register their opinions with the subcommittee about Wilson and his legacy. In addition, members of the Board’s subcommittee will schedule visits to Princeton’s campus early in the spring semester to listen to the views of the University community, including its alumni. After assessing the information it has gathered and hearing the views of all parts of the Princeton community, the Board will decide whether there are any changes that should be made in how the University recognizes Wilson’s legacy.

    One could, of course, complain that committees are where good ideas go to die (or be hidden away until the ruckus has died down), but, given the realities of who has the power to do what, it seems like a reasonable start.

    I’m not sure how I feel about all of this myself. I’m enough of a historian to be uncomfortable with what might be seen as the erasing of history; if it were up to me, I’d probably leave the statues in place but add additional layers of explanatory/distancing plaques (so, yes, more permanent, and perhaps slightly more tempered/diplomatic, versions of the post-its). But the naming-in-honor phenomenon is a bit different (and a bit harder to layer/contextualize in every instance), and if institutions can take Bill Cosby’s name off professorships, schools, and such, then I’m inclined to think that Princeton can reconsider Wilson this and that, and Yale can have another think about Calhoun College.

    But I’m not returning the checks I once received from the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Foundation (interesting what associations we have with names, and how they can be created). In my defense, I used them in part to study African-American literature.

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  8. [I think I included enough links in an earlier version of this comment to send it to the spam filter. So here’s the link-less version; google ’em yourself]
    Post-its are being put to all kinds of good uses this week. After someone put black tape over the portraits (framed photos, really) of black professors at Harvard Law, students responded by putting post-its describing their positive experiences with those professors around the frames.

    Also, Pres. Eisgruber of Princeton has addressed the Wilson issue, among others, in a letter to students, staff, and alums. The relevant passage on Wilson:

    One of the most sensitive and controversial issues pertains to Woodrow Wilson’s legacy on the campus. As every Princetonian knows, Wilson left a lasting imprint on this University and this campus, and while much of his record had a very positive impact on the shaping of modern Princeton, his record on race is disturbing. As a University we have to be open to thoughtful re-examination of our own history, and I believe it is appropriate to engage our community in a careful exploration of this legacy. Since the Board of Trustees has authority over how the University recognizes Wilson, I have asked the Board to develop a process to consider this issue, and the Board has agreed to do so. The Board will form a subcommittee to collect information about Wilson’s record and impact from a wide array of perspectives and constituencies. This information will include a range of scholarly understandings of Wilson. Toward this end, the Board will solicit letters from experts familiar with Wilson, and it will make those letters public. The Board will also establish a vehicle to allow alumni, faculty, students, and staff to register their opinions with the subcommittee about Wilson and his legacy. In addition, members of the Board’s subcommittee will schedule visits to Princeton’s campus early in the spring semester to listen to the views of the University community, including its alumni. After assessing the information it has gathered and hearing the views of all parts of the Princeton community, the Board will decide whether there are any changes that should be made in how the University recognizes Wilson’s legacy.

    One could, of course, complain that committees are where good ideas go to die (or be hidden away until the ruckus has died down), but, given the realities of who has the power to do what, it seems like a reasonable start.

    I’m not sure how I feel about all of this myself. I’m enough of a historian to be uncomfortable with what might be seen as the erasing of history; if it were up to me, I’d probably leave the statues in place but add additional layers of explanatory/distancing plaques (so, yes, more permanent, and perhaps slightly more tempered/diplomatic, versions of the post-its). But the naming-in-honor phenomenon is a bit different (and a bit harder to layer/contextualize in every instance), and if institutions can take Bill Cosby’s name off professorships, schools, and such, then I’m inclined to think that Princeton can reconsider Wilson this and that, and Yale can have another think about Calhoun College.

    But I’m not returning the checks I once received from the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Foundation (interesting what associations we have with names, and how they can be created). In my defense, I used them in part to study African-American literature.

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      • MEH: I’m not a fan of “the enemy of my enemy”-type arguments. I don’t care that Glenn Beck hates Woodrow Wilson–for mostly insane reasons. Princeton students, faculty, and alums have the right to decide if and how it wants to honor or commemorate his life on their campus.

        Another issue here is that in both TJ’s and WW’s cases, we’re talking about U.S. Presidents. No matter how stained in retrospect their historical reputations, it’s not like any of us have the power to eject them from American history and memory entirely. So, I really don’t care what W&M and Princeton or Mizzou do–how they choose to use their public space, name their buildings, or honor alums is up to them, and has little causal bearing on how American historians will write and remember these men.

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  9. I’ve been going on the IHE site for a few years now and I really wonder if some of the people making comments are actually working in higher education. Granted, the field is huge, but some of the comments look like they’re right out of the right wing comment sections of political candidates. In fact, many of the comments on this particular thread over there are just not what I would expect from educated people.

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    • I agree–and these are moderated comments! It’s just amazing what will bring the sewer-dwellers to the surface.

      Sadly, I’m sure that many of the most reductive and ignorant are in fact coming from professors and administrators. Anyone who tries to tell me how “liberal” academia is has never worked in higher education. Universities are enormous bureaucracies & so are by definition conservative in how they operate. But when it comes to race in higher ed, the white people here are reflexively hostile to the notion that HWCUs need to rethink their design or change anything at all about how they operate.

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      • What you tend to get in the comments on either *IHE* or the *Chronicle* is cranks–smart people whose thinking has become warped on certain topics. Like Jimmy Dick, I am really curious how many actually teach in universities, and, if they do teach, what their careers have been like. I doubt many are in fields related to the topics they are opining on, and so I doubt that their observations, if taken seriously, would raise questions about their professional competence, though I could be wrong.

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      • EngLitProf, I think you’re right: it’s not humanists writing in their thoughts about the evils of affirmative action, “SJWs,” or microaggressions. In my experience on some other blogs, it’s a bunch of retired scientists–older white guys–with fairly regressive opinions about the way the world is changing around them, even in the university.

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      • I did speak to a history professor at the University of Missouri shortly after the Jefferson statue post-its started to show up. Based on what he told me, most of the press on the subject is blowing it out of proportion followed by the politicalization of the issue from those that grasp at anything to feed the crowd. The high point was at the homecoming. Much of this was related to the larger racial issue which came to a head a few weeks ago. The conversation is actually being well received in history courses because it raised student interest in Jefferson.
        I even had my own students at my CC asking me about it and we had a nice interesting dialogue which was a great chance to engage them in a conversation. The petition also went nowhere last I heard.
        I do agree on the commenters. I notice so many of them will not use their actual names and that tips me off to realizing that many of them would never say a word if they had to use their real names. It would also reveal that they are not in the field of humanities in any way. Sort of reminds me of a certain preacher down Texas way who tries to pass as a historian when all he is doing is using history to support his ideology.

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