ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

What’s in a Name?

May 5, 2005 by ACTA

At Vanderbilt University, the dorm that bears the name "Confederate Memorial Hall" has an unusual and controversial history. Built nearly seventy years ago, it was originally part of the George Peabody College of Teachers, which merged with Vanderbilt in 1979. One third of the building's $150,000 price tag was raised over a period of years by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which required that it be given the name "Confederate Memorial Hall"; the purpose of the building was to provide housing for young women descendants of the former confederacy so that they might attend college.

The building's history--and Vanderbilt's inherited contractual obligation to the UDC--was nearly lost recently in Vanderbilt's scramble to prove that it is a racially aware institution. After Vanderbilt renovated the building in 1988, it became the subject of racial controversy on campus; some black students felt so strongly about Confederate Memorial Hall's tainted historical associations that they refused to set foot in it. In 2002, after more than a decade of tension, Vanderbilt caved in to pressure from campus interest groups claiming the university was showing gross insensitivity to minority students by allowing the dorm to retain a name that associated it with the South's painful racial history. In a poorly conceived gesture of appeasement, administrators agreed to take the "confederate" out of Confederate Memorial Hall, and to rename the building Memorial Hall. And then they were sued. As Vanderbilt administrators contemplated how best to remove the offensive word carved into the hall's stone face, the United Daughters of the Confederacy asked the court to block Vanderbilt from doing anything of the kind.

Two and a half years later, the verdict is in, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy have won. A Tennessee appeals court has overturned an initial ruling granting Vanderbilt the right to remove the word "confederate" from the building; the appellate court found that Vanderbilt has a contractual obligation to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and that the university can only consider changing the building's name if it pays UDC the contemporary equivalent of the $50,000 gift the organization originally contributed to its cost.

Vanderbilt's argument--that the university's right to change the building's name is guaranteed by the principle of academic freedom--was rejected out of hand by the court, as was Vanderbilt's related argument that it had an institutional obligation to demonstrate sensitivity to minority students. The ruling is explicitly instructive regarding both the limits of academic freedom and the ethics of university fund-raising:

We fail to see how the adoption of a rule allowing universities to avoid their contractual and other voluntarily assumed legal obligations whenever, in the university'sopinion, those obligations have begun to impede their academic mission would advance principles of academic freedom. ... To the contrary, allowing Vanderbilt and other academic institutions to jettison their contractual and other legal obligations so casually would seriously impair their ability to raise money in the future by entering into gift agreements such as the ones at issue here. ... It is not within the purview of this court to resolve the larger cultural and social conflicts regarding whether and how those who fought for the Confederacy should be honored or remembered.

The poor historiography underwriting Vanderbilt's defense was also addressed by Judge William Cain, who wrote that "A great majority of those who fought in the Confederate armies owned no slaves. Their homeland was invaded, and they rose up in defense of their homes and their farms. They fought the unequal struggle until nearly half their enlisted strength was crippled or beneath the sod. This dormitory is a memorial to them."

Vanderbilt originally agreed to remove the word "confederate" from the building as a quick and easy concession; it was a way of appeasing growing anger and tension on campus for what appeared at the time to be the minor inconvenience of sandblasting away an offending word. That concession has proved to be neither cheap nor easy, however. The courts have put a price tag on it--and Vanderbilt will almost certainly have trouble on its hands it it does not agree to pay it.


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