Opinion | The University of Wisconsin, Race and History

To the Editor:

Re “The Performative Antiracism of Black Students at the U. of Wisconsin” and “The University of Wisconsin Smears a Once-Treasured Alum,” by John McWhorter (Opinion newsletters, nytimes.com, Aug. 24 and Sept. 17):

Recent coverage of the University of Wisconsin-Madison asserts that students and administrators are overly sensitive and reactionary, falsely pursuing small, insignificant symbols, rather than supporting significant goals of racial equity and not maligning an alumnus.

As the chancellor at Wisconsin, I’m writing in collaboration with student leaders from the Wisconsin Black Student Union and Union Council to tell you what actually occurred.

Like campuses across the country, we are wrestling with named places and objects that have imperfect and racist histories, while also striving to create an environment that makes students, faculty and staff feel that they belong.

Who and what are given prominence on campus carry meaning and reflect what values we wish to endorse. These are choices. We sought to question whether those choices — if revisited today — reflect our values.

In 2018, the university removed the name of Fredric March, the actor and an alumnus, from a student performance space at the request of students, and after months of discussion about the subject among our student leaders. It did so after the terrible events of Charlottesville and historical research showing incontrovertibly that March was a member of a campus group called the Ku Klux Klan, though the group was not affiliated in any way with the national Knights of the K.K.K.

A rock that was associated with a vile racial slur in the 1920s was also removed from our main campus, at the request of the Wisconsin Black Student Union and other groups. We came to this conclusion after more than a year of consultation and discussion, sparked by the death of George Floyd.

While it is good that March went on to become a fighter for civil rights and equality, the fact remains that while a student here he aligned himself with a student group that echoed the K.K.K. name.

There are some things in our country’s history that are so toxic that you can never erase the stain, let alone merit a named space in our student union. Membership in a group with a name like that of the K.K.K. is one of them.

This was not a casual “erasure of history,” or cancel culture, but part of a larger effort to research, acknowledge and, to the extent possible, rectify the often painful history and impact of racism and other forms of exclusion, many of which still affect our campus today.

Universities are not static places; they live and breathe, grow and change and reinvent themselves with new energy and approaches every fall, as new students arrive. Like all colleges, we’re guided by a series of values — and ours happens to be a call for “fearless sifting and winnowing” to find truth.

We believe that if we do not acknowledge both the good and the bad parts of our history, we cannot construct a better present for current students, or future for the next generation.

Rebecca M. Blank
Madison, Wis.
The writer is the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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