Universities need to confront their past, not omit it

As far as academic fêtes go, this one felt pretty run of the mill. It was 2014 at my institution, the University of Southern California (USC), and the event was an elaborate dinner to celebrate the unveiling of a statue – that of Judge Robert Maclay Widney, one of the institution’s founders.

As expected, President Max Nikias stood before the genial crowd to give a few remarks. He lauded the judge’s vision and dedication to education and shared an apocryphal story about how, in 1871, the judge waded into a mob in what was then downtown Los Angeles to save Chinese immigrants from deadly mobs during anti-Chinese riots.

“In that moment, my fellow Trojans, the DNA of USC as a global institution first materialised,” Nikias enthused. “On that evening, the ethos, the character, of USC began to take shape.”

The problem is, the president omitted the darker, more troubling aspects of the founder’s history.

Yes, Judge Widney was, in many ways, a forward-thinker. But the judge also helped perpetuate the backward, racist elements of his culture. There is evidence that Judge Widney was the progenitor of the Home Guard Vigilance Committee in Los Angeles – which participated in the vigilante lynching of individuals whom they thought had evaded the law. To historians, Widney’s vigilantes created the environment in Los Angeles that enabled the Chinese riot to occur that the judge so heroically tried to stop.

The judge’s brother, Joseph Pomeroy Widney, also espoused racist opinions. In 1907, Joseph Widney published a two-volume tome on the Race Life of the Aryan Peoples. In it, he said: "The Black and the White could live together with the White as master – though to the harm of the White man even more than of the Black; but they cannot live together as equals." Joseph Widney, too, graces USC’s history books – as its second president and founding dean of the medical school.

USC’s connections to the shameful parts of California history don’t end there. Rufus von KleinSmid, the fifth president of USC and for whom a building is named, helped found the Human Betterment Foundation, an organisation aimed at sterilising women of colour so that California’s population might be ‘improved’.

Whitewashing history

None of this, as you might imagine, was mentioned at the judge’s statue unveiling. Instead, President Nikias referred to Virgil’s mythic The Aeneid to highlight the importance of how unbounded dreams intersect with potential.

I point all this out not because USC is unique in whitewashing its history – quite the opposite. Despite the fact that information about anyone and everyone – including the benefactors and founders of our colleges and universities – is more readily and easily available than ever, our institutions, whether in the United States, Europe or elsewhere, continue to give in to the temptation to sweep our troubling pasts under the rug – as if they can remain there forever.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be as surprised as I am about this practice. After all, our institutions have a long tradition of honouring people with chequered pasts.

The first statue on an American college campus was that of Lord Botetourt, placed at the College of William and Mary in 1801. Lord Botetourt, the governor of Virginia who was beloved by the Virginian colonists as a supporter of independence, was a revered member of the college’s Board of Visitors. Subsequent evidence revealed he was playing both sides – the freedom fighters and the royalists – to his advantage. Nevertheless, a new statue of him remains in place where the original was first situated.

Yet, some other statues are coming under attack, revealing that times are indeed changing, if slowly. Statues, monuments and the names on buildings are no longer considered benign campus decorations by all, as recent news has shown.

At the University of Virginia, students climbed atop the statue of the institution’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, and covered it with black tarp, claiming he was a racist and rapist. The University of Texas at Austin removed four Confederate statues in the dead of night last August; they have been sued by those who honour the confederacy. And Duke University removed a statue of Robert E Lee in the fall.

A blind eye

Still, many institutions continue to turn a blind eye despite the fact that their historical figures – and the monuments that honour them – are falling under increasing scrutiny. My own institution is among these.

The myth of the past is not only meant to memorialise one or another individual, but also is intended to teach us a lesson about our collective present. President Nikias, rightly, wants to claim that USC’s history is noble and honourable, and that, as importantly, we must work hard to earn a “triumphant future”.

And yet, if we are learning anything about our collective past it is that all of our founders were flawed men and women. John F Kennedy famously said at Yale University’s commencement: “The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived, and dishonest – but the myth – persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.”

Some might wish that we scrub the university of flawed individuals so that no reference is made of them. Others might try to whitewash the history and mythologise the institution to spur it on to greater achievement. In an era of ‘fake news’, however, if a university has any role, it is to search for the truth and to accept whatever we may find out about ourselves, however uncomfortable that may make us.

Our founders may well have been visionary in some respects and they may be horribly flawed in other ways. To overlook those failings short-changes all of us in our collective understanding about how to live our lives.

Some institutions, such as Princeton and Yale, have undertaken thoughtful reviews about the names on their buildings and the sculptures around their campuses. Other institutions, such as Brown and Georgetown, have admirably looked at their history of racism and their involvement with slavery, however shameful such actions were.

The president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology deserves applause for his willingness to engage the campus in a review of its past with the belief that “these chapters of our history will leave us wiser, stronger and more unified”.

We would be well advised to commission thoughtful histories of our campuses regardless of location or nation, rather than try to mythologise them. Likely, our future fêtes for our founders will become less unabashedly celebratory in mood. But unveiling such truths about our past will be essential for understanding the challenges of our present.

William G Tierney is Wilbur-Kieffer Professor of Higher Education and co-director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California, United States.