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University presidents consider the challenges of commemorating history’s dark chapters

Three people sit in chairs under banners reading VCU.
VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., moderated a wide-ranging discussion with Beverly Warren, Ed.D., Ph.D., president of Kent State University, and Edward Ayers, Ph.D., president emeritus of the University of Richmond, about how to commemorate the difficult histories of communities and campuses.

As people and institutions throughout the United States undertake a re-examination of the country’s history and how it is commemorated, two university presidents and one former president met at Virginia Commonwealth University last week to consider the opportunities and challenges that society as a whole — and colleges in particular — face when attempting to identify the best, most honest ways of remembering and learning from the past.

VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., hosted Beverly Warren, Ed.D. Ph.D., president of Kent State University, and Edward Ayers, Ph.D., president emeritus of the University of Richmond, for the discussion, which served as the culmination of “Commemorating History: Challenges and Opportunities,” a daylong series of events and activities marking the 50th anniversary of VCU’s founding in 1968. Each panelist discussed the specific challenges their institutions face, while also taking a broader look at the issues at play.

Rao said the U.S. has entered an era of casting a more critical eye on how it chooses to commemorate historical events. The result, so far, is a more robust, more thoughtful approach — but one that is ongoing and evolving. College campuses are at the “epicenter” of those conversations, including at VCU, “because universities are central to American life,” Rao said — and because universities have plentiful examples of the physical commemoration of history and historical figures on their campuses, such as through statues and names on prominent buildings.

Earlier in the afternoon, a session of the symposium identified historical commemorations on and near VCU’s campuses, including those that honor members of the Confederate military. Attendees participated in small-group discussions afterward.

“Our history that we choose to tell is the story of who we want to be and what we want to be remembered for,” Rao said. “It’s a way to honor and celebrate what we choose to honor and celebrate, but it’s also a chance to learn and a chance to heal and a chance to think about ways that we can do better together in what we call the human experience.”

 

Remembering a tragedy

Warren, who previously served as VCU’s provost, said 13 seconds of gunfire from nearly a half-century ago continues to loom large at Kent State. The university is approaching the 50th anniversary of May 4, 1970, when National Guard troops opened fire on Kent State students on campus during an anti-war protest. Four students were killed, and nine more were injured.

Ever since the tragedy, the university and its community have been contending with the question of how to best remember and observe the event. At times over the decades, the university has been at odds with families and others striving to honor those who died and to mark the occasion. Since she arrived at Kent State in 2014, Warren said she has worked hard to engage with family members and a committee that formed independently of the university to ensure the students’ memories were honored.

Warren said community engagement is paramount to developing a meaningful commemoration of history. Without it, she said, an institution risks sharing a blinkered, incomplete view of the past.

“Where we should start when we think about remembering our history is thinking about how we should engage the voices of those in the community whose voices need to be heard but sometimes aren’t heard,” Warren said.

Warren warned against the tendency to cluster with like-minded people — made increasingly easy with technology and laser-targeted options for entertainment and information. She said universities can serve as a stage where difficult conversations between those with differing opinions can be held.

“People will only care about their own opinions if they don’t hear someone else’s,” she said.

Kent State currently holds a range of remembrances on and around the anniversary of the shooting. A physical memorial is on campus, and the university is home to a School of Peace and Conflict Studies as a living memorial to the students killed. However, Warren said Kent State continues to evolve and grow in its efforts because the past remains a living thing.

“A key lesson that we have learned is that memorials need to look forward as much as they look back,” she said.

A man in a suit holds up his hands while speaking.
Ayers said Americans too often avoid looking at their country's history "square in the face." (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Richmond and the Civil War

Ayers, a historian who currently serves as the Tucker-Boatwright Professor of the Humanities at the University of Richmond, said Americans often say they enjoy learning about their country’s history, but they frequently mean a decidedly varnished version.

“We think we like history but when we say that, we really mean we like nostalgia — this journey that makes us feel good about the awesome people that we are,” Ayers said. “There’s this idea that even when we did less awesome things, like go to war against the United States, we’re excited to look for the good things underneath.”

Ayers said the events of recent years, including the removal of statutes of Confederate military figures in some communities and the violent protests of white supremacists in Charlottesville in August 2017, have helped to bring into sharper focus some specific horrors of the country’s history that sometimes are glossed over. It also has demonstrated the danger of choosing not to take a clear, truthful look at historical events and people. Ayers said misunderstanding or avoiding history, whether intentionally or unintentionally, is dangerous.

As an example, he pointed to the unambivalent reverence sometimes afforded the Confederates whose statues line Monument Avenue — a romanticized view that neglects their determined defense of slavery and the aim of the statues’ erection in a time of racial segregation to promote a “Lost Cause” narrative that argues the cause of the Confederacy was just.

“Just because you’re ignoring history doesn’t mean it doesn’t have enormous power and just because you’re not aware of it doesn’t mean other people aren’t and just because you have your own story about what something means, and that it seems OK, doesn’t mean that everybody else feels that way,” Ayers said. “It seems to me that what the events of the last few years have shown is that the more history is suppressed, the more power it has to disrupt when it is shocked into action.”

Ayers has worked with a number of universities and communities to reconsider their past and how they mark it. When he thinks about Richmond, he sees a city that has a long way to go in commemorating its complete history. In particular, he said, the Richmond community has a responsibility to examine the history of the slave trade and to reckon more thoroughly with the crucial role the city had in its cultivation. He noted the city honors the Confederacy and the Civil War in a way it does not celebrate a monumental outcome of the war — Emancipation.

Ultimately, he said, history should not be circled or slid past but faced head on.

“These illusions that the past was painless and that it all worked out and that everybody was brave and that everybody was good is not really the kind of history that we need,” Ayers said. “We’re not doing ourselves any favors, and we’re not doing our kids any favors, to tell fairy tales about how we got to where we are.”

People talk at tables.
During small-group discussions earlier in the day, participants discussed how history is and should be commemorated on VCU's campuses. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Looking ahead

Each panel participant expressed optimism that historical discourse is improving in the U.S., pointing to a younger generation that is blessed with an openness to critical thinking and a determination to be heard.

“What I see in young people today is a very engaged, very caring group who is willing to speak up and freely express themselves,” Warren said.

Rao agreed, saying that he has never felt more positive about higher education and the constructive role it can play in the improvement of American society. A large piece of that, he said, is the students that he encounters on his campus every day.

“I feel a lot of optimism and hope and excitement because of what I see in our students,” Rao said. “They are so creative, articulate and excited that it makes me excited about the future.”