Censorship on university campuses targets historic figures
A major nationwide trend on campuses is the removal of historic artwork depicting prominent figures or scenes that are deemed offensive or racist by today’s standards.
The censorship is getting wider in scope. Controversial historical figures like Christopher Columbus and Woodrow Wilson have consistently drawn student outrage and protest, as have Confederate monuments, but other more beloved figures like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are also beginning to attract controversy.
There are many examples in recent years of universities removing or censoring artwork that has been accused of being derogatory, disrespectful, hurtful or racist, according to a survey by The College Fix.
Campus activists have aimed their protests at a variety of murals, statues, and other forms of artwork, demanding that they be taken down or covered up because their presences represent some sort of danger to students on campus. Oftentimes, administrators agree.
Perhaps the most prominent example has been the ongoing controversy over the Silent Sam statue at UNC. The statue was torn down at the beginning of this school year by a group of protesters. Subsequent protests also saw violence and an increased police presence on campus. The school’s compromise plan to create a history center was shot down by the Board of Governors, and it now appears that the statue will remain off of the school’s campus.
Additionally, a student at North Carolina Central University toppled a Confederate statue on campus, and the University of Louisville moved a Confederate statue to a Civil War site in Brandenburg, Ky. In 2017, The College Fix reported on more than a dozen universities that took action to censor Confederate-era artwork.
But beyond Confederate controversies, two consistent themes concern the depiction of African Americans and Native Americans, and how prominent figures in American history are portrayed.
Notre Dame recently made headlines for the school’s decision to cover up murals of Christopher Columbus on campus. The movement to get the murals covered began in earnest in 2017, when more than 340 members of the school’s community signed a letter asking the university’s president Rev. John Jenkins to censor the murals. Jenkins agreed.
“Whatever else Columbus’s arrival brought, for these peoples it led to exploitation, expropriation of land, repression of vibrant cultures, enslavement, and new diseases causing epidemics that killed millions,” Jenkins said of Columbus’s legacy, adding that the explorer’s arrival was a catastrophe for native people.
Pepperdine University removed a statue of Columbus in early 2017 in the face of calls to remove the explorer from campus. As a compromise, the school said that the statue would be moved to the school’s campus in Florence, Italy. Despite multiple inquiries by The College Fix, university officials refuse to say whether the statue has been set up, as promised, at its new location. For now, the statue looks like it’s been wiped off the map.
Similarly, Dartmouth University made the decision to remove a set of murals that “depict Dartmouth founder Eleazar Wheelock bringing a cask of rum and educational books to Native Americans, including topless women, one of whom is shown trying to read an upside-down book…” The murals were described as “disturbing” and “incompatible with Dartmouth’s mission and values,” and were moved to an off-campus storage facility.
Several controversial and prominent American historical figures have also come under fire.
A “Reflection and Action Working Group” recommended that George Washington High School in San Francisco remove a mural of George Washington due to concerns over potentially traumatizing students despite the nuanced intentions of the mural’s artist. Two panels showed Washington interacting with Native Americans and slaves.
Princeton University removed a picture of Woodrow Wilson from a dining hall, Yale removed a photo of John C. Calhoun from its Calhoun College dining hall, Duke University removed a statue of Robert E. Lee from a chapel entrance, and the University of Texas took down statues of Jefferson Davis and Woodrow Wilson from campus.
Florida State University took down a statue of a descendant of Thomas Jefferson after students brought up the descendant’s history of racism.
Yale censored a work of art deemed “hostile” that showed an armed Native American and Puritan standing next to one another. UW-Stout moved frontier paintings of Native Americans canoeing in a river with French trappers to “controlled” campus rooms due to potentially harmful effects on students, and the University of Kentucky also censored a mural of African Americans workers in a tobacco field and a Native American wielding a tomahawk because of concerns over microaggressions against students.
Saint Louis University, a Catholic university, removed a statue that depicted a Jesuit priest praying over two Native Americans.
Universities do not only react to left-leaning complaints, though.
Marquette University removed a mural of Assata Shakur after a professor spoke out about Shakur’s conviction of killing a cop and presence on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. The Republican governor of Kansas also called for the removal of an art display at the University of Kansas of an American flag with a striped sock in its upper left corner intended to symbolize the detention of children at the border.
“The disrespectful display of a desecrated American flag on the KU campus is absolutely unacceptable,” Gov. Jeff Colyer said. “I demand that it be taken down immediately.” The university removed the flag, Inside Higher Ed reported.
The trend shows no end in sight.
Cal State Maritime was recently forced to delay a decision to paint over student murals on campus after the school faced fierce backlash from students angry at the unilateral decision to censor the murals. And right now, students are demanding a Thomas Jefferson statue be removed from its location at Hofstra University.