A few months ago I wrote about an online debate between Jacob Grier and Joel Hart on the Confederate Memorial Hall issue at Vanderbilt University. Now it seems there is yet another chapter to the ongoing saga.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the story, the short version is that the United Daughters of the Confederacy contributed $50,000 in 1933 to partially fund construction of a residence hall at George Peabody College for Teachers with the understanding that the building would be named “Confederate Memorial Hall” and that female descendants of the Confederacy studying at Peabody could live in the hall free of charge. Today Peabody is now part of Vanderbilt, nearly all residence halls on campus (including the one in question) are coed, and every few years a protest ensues because a student or faculty member refuses to set foot inside a building honoring anything related to the Confederacy. Three years ago, Vanderbilt unilaterally decided to change the name of the building for campus purposes — maps, housing assignments, etc. — and initiated plans to change the name fo the façade as well. When the UDC got wind of this, they sued Vanderbilt for breach of contract.
Whenst last this issue was in the news Davidson County (Nashville) Chancellor Irvin Kilcrease had ruled in favor of Vanderbilt, determining that the UDC-Peabody contract is essentially voided by the fact that the building has been sufficiently renovated and its relationship to the university sufficiently altered so as to render the contract both obsolete and out of sync with Vanderbilt’s academic mission. However, today the Tennessee Court of Appeals overturned the lower court’s ruling, finding that Vanderbilt is not at liberty to change the name of the building arbitrarily. Inside Higher Ed selects this money quote from the court’s opinion:
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’s opinion, 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.
Interestingly, the court did not restrict Vanderbilt’s ability to change the name on paper, nor did it prohibit the university from changing the façade under appropriate circumstances. Those circumstances? To void the contract Vanderbilt must repay the UDC the present-day value of its $50,000 donation, which after a major depression followed by 72 years of inflation should be approximately 400 billion dollars.
As per usual, Vanderbilt’s Public Affairs division was ready with an immediate response. The Vanderbilt Register, the publication dissemenated by the university’s propaganda machine, issued the following breaking story to all subscribers. Strangely, the link sent this morning under the title “Vanderbilt will obey appeals court decision on Memorial Hall” was resent a few hours later with a “NOTE CORRECTED HEADLINE” tag and the new title “Appeals court rules on Memorial Hall dispute”. So, as much respect as I normally have for Vanderbilt’s public relations staff, apparently somebody royally screwed up and/or somebody up high got royally pissed off. Funny what a difference a few words can make :)
Personal opinion? Honestly, I’ve never been on the university’s side here. Vanderbilt is attempting to hire a constuction company and change a name etched into the façade of a registered national historic landmark against the will of the building’s original donors primarily on the rationale that some people don’t like the word “Confederate”. To argue that adapting to the evolving standards of political correctness on this issue is not only appropriate, but is in fact sufficiently consistent with the university’s academic mission so as to justify voiding a donor’s contract without repayment, strikes me as one hell of an indignant position to take.
Peabody may have bought a lemon in agreeing to the name, and Vanderbilt may have bought a lemon in assuming Peabody’s contractual obligations, but the noble play here is to suck it up until you can sell it off, not to swindle the other party out of their contractual right by accusing their cause of being inconsistent with the commonly-accepted standards of intellectual progress. But that’s just my two cents; feel free to offer your rebuttals.
Additional reading on the ruling is available via Newsday.Com, the Nashville City Paper and The Tennessean.
[Update 5/6/05: Today’s Tennessean editorial stakes out a position I can get behind. Vanderbilt got its diversity PR and now its best interest is to drop the suit, with the name remaining on the building as a reminder of the university’s “noble” crusade against injustice that sellout tour guides will regurgitate for years to come.]