Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Old South, New South Clash on Vanderbilt's Campus: Decision to Change Building's Name Lands University in Legal Battle. (Noteworthy News)

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Old South, New South Clash on Vanderbilt's Campus: Decision to Change Building's Name Lands University in Legal Battle. (Noteworthy News)

Article excerpt


Vanderbilt University is ensnarled in a legal battle over its decision to remove the word "Confederate" from a campus building that was partially built by descendants of the Confederate Army.

Vanderbilt Chancellor Gordon Gee decided in September to rename Confederate Memorial Hall, a dormitory originally built in 1935 for the George Peabody School for Teachers with financing from the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC).

The decision to remove the name came after years of requests by university faculty, staff and students. Many said the dormitory's name was offensive and gave the impression that Vanderbilt supported the Confederate Army, which during the Civil War supported states' rights to continue slavery.

UDC leaders immediately condemned the university's decision, vowing to sue. The pro-Confederate organization accused the Vanderbilt administration of bowing to the dictates of political correctness. In November, in Davidson County Chancery Court, the Tennessee division of the UDC sued the university in an attempt to stop it from renaming Confederate Memorial Hall.

"We're very upset," Carolyn Kent, president of the Tennessee division, told The Tennessean, Nashville's local newspaper. "There's a movement at Vanderbilt to really focus on diversity and multiculturalism. But in that mix, there seems to be no room for anyone of Confederate descent."

Though the judge has not ruled on the injunction yet, Vanderbilt attorneys have already lost two motions. In January, Chancery Court Judge Irvin H. Kilcrease Jr. rejected Vanderbilt's motion to keep confidential the names of employees or trustees who requested the name change. Vanderbilt has said that several employees--including Chancellor Gee--have received threatening phone calls and e-mail messages from UDC sympathizers. One caller threatened to "cut out" the heart of Gee, Vanderbilt officials said in court documents.

Kilcrease called the motion "overly broad," but required UDC attorneys to get permission from him before disclosing the names of Vanderbilt personnel who helped get the name removed.

Additionally, Vanderbilt had requested that UDC attorneys not be able to depose two Vanderbilt faculty members, math professor Dr. Jonathan Farley and retired Vanderbilt historian Dr. Paul Conkin. Again, the judge denied the motion. Farley wrote a critical op-ed piece about the UDC that was printed in The Tennessean, and Conkin wrote a history of Vanderbilt.

"We are vigorously contesting the suit on several grounds, including the fact that there is no valid contract between the UDC and Peabody College regarding the name of the building," says Michael Schoenfeld, Vanderbilt's vice chancellor of public affairs.

"In addition, we believe that the principles of academic freedom regarding the name of a building on our campus are urgent and compelling."

Vanderbilt's ongoing lawsuit is perhaps the latest sign of an ever-increasing clash between the ideals of the New South and the historical legacy of the Old South. Schoenfeld says the university wants to distance itself from values and symbols that some may associate with the South's racist past.

"The change is intended to help create a more positive, inclusive environment at Vanderbilt," Schoenfeld says. …

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