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WOODY BASSETT: A connection worth keeping

UA chancellor finds balance in Fulbright recommendation by Woody Bassett | June 17, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

Faced with challenging and sensitive public issues, there's a tendency to overreact then overcorrect. In trying to get it right, we sometimes go too far, partly because reasonable and common-sense compromise has become so elusive in America today.

On the issue of how the University of Arkansas marks its connection to and the life of the late U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright, however, Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz got it right.

The UA last year formed a committee, of which I was one of 19 members, to evaluate the presence of Fulbright's name and likeness on the Fayetteville campus. The committee was also asked to consider whether Gov. Charles Brough's name should be removed from Brough Commons. Following the release of the committee's recommendations, Chancellor Steinmetz gathered additional perspectives from a wide range of university stakeholders then presented his own recommendations to the University of Arkansas System president.

Steinmetz recommended Brough's name be removed from the dining hall due to his role in the aftermath of the 1919 Elaine Massacre, one of the deadliest racial conflicts in our nation's history. With regard to Fulbright, the chancellor recommended Fulbright's name remain on the College of Arts and Sciences and his statue be moved from its present spot outside Old Main to another location on campus with proper context of his leadership record added.

The chancellor found the right balance. His duty is to be mindful of the big picture and do what is in the current and future best interests of the University of Arkansas. Steinmetz's recommendations do exactly that.

Sen. Fulbright had a disappointing voting record on civil rights legislation, which should be acknowledged. But that doesn't mean his presence on the campus should be erased. He made judgments that reflected the Arkansas political conditions at the time and which weren't decisive to the passage of the civil rights bills in 1964 and 1965. And, he remained in office to have a major impact on ending the Vietnam War, saving the lives of countless young Americans.

On the downtown square in Fulbright's hometown of Fayetteville stands a bust inscribed in part: "J. William Fulbright, a Fayetteville son, President of the University of Arkansas, and United States Senator from 1945--1974, planted seeds of peace which grew into the United Nations, the Fulbright Exchange Program, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts ... We honor the beauty of his dream ... peace among nations and the free exchange of knowledge and ideas across the earth."

This inscription highlights why Fulbright's presence is so prevalent and justified on the Fayetteville campus. The Fulbright name is still favorably known and appreciated throughout the world, immensely benefiting the university in a myriad of ways. To remove Fulbright's presence from campus would surely damage the university.

If the Fulbright statue is moved, perhaps it should be taken off its pedestal and incorporated into the Fulbright Peace Fountain across the street from Old Main, with context added nearby.

Clearly, the university needs to be responsive to the feelings expressed by many Black students and others on campus. Turn the yearlong Fulbright debate into an opportunity for some positive changes that will actually make a difference for students. Make this about the future instead of the past.

The chancellor seeks to do that by also recommending new initiatives to make a better and more welcoming campus for all. Steinmetz put it this way: "Ultimately, the goal and desire is to create a healthy dialogue, to minimize hurt feelings, and challenge false dichotomies -- that you are either against Fulbright and Brough or you are a racist. It is just more complicated than that. Perhaps a better way to signal our true and abiding commitment to creating an environment where all members of our community feel a sense of belonging and an ability to contribute in meaningful ways, is to invest in programs and activities that advance our diversity, equity, inclusion and sense of belonging."

If properly funded and fully implemented, the chancellor's proposed new initiatives will benefit the entire university community, especially students, faculty and staff of color on the Fayetteville campus.

It's particularly important for the university to ramp up programs designed to recruit and retain more Black students and faculty. As a member of the committee that evaluated Fulbright's legacy on campus, I was surprised to learn that the Black student enrollment on the Fayetteville campus is slightly above 4%, compared to a total Black population in Arkansas of approximately 16%. This has to change. Providing opportunities for more young Black Arkansans to get a quality education at the flagship campus and recruiting more minority and underrepresented faculty to Fayetteville to teach should be among the university's top priorities.

One last thought. Fulbright's true legacy isn't in the statue of him on campus nor in the college that bears his name. Rather, his legacy is in the achievements of those who have benefited from Fulbright scholarships, the institutions of international cooperation he championed and the lasting imprint he left on education, foreign affairs and world peace.

Print Headline: A connection worth keeping

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