Response: History department responds to Chancellor Vitter’s remarks

Re: “Guest Column: Ole Miss Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter” (Oct. 11)

Last Thursday, Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter issued his personal observations about the recent report on microaggressions by the UM Race Diary Project and the decision-making process at our university. These comments asserted two major claims that seemed at odds with Chancellor Vitter’s previous commitments to open dialogue regarding the full implementation of the 2014 Action Plan.

The first is in reference to the petition by 105 faculty members, graduate students, and staff to rename the journalism school after Ida B. Wells. The Chancellor urged patience and described our efforts as premature by claiming that “any naming decision goes through very careful consideration through an established process.” There is a process, one that urges us to engage; it is outlined in Item No. 5 of the 2014 Action Plan, which pertains to “telling more of the story of Mississippi’s struggles,” including “adding meaningful new symbols” and “future naming opportunities for centers, buildings, etc., that will lead to a fuller expression of our history.” Under Item No. 5, these responsibilities fall to the Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Community Engagement, a position now held by Katrina Caldwell, who is “charged with the long-term management of this recommendation.” Importantly, she is instructed to “seek suggestions from various interested constituency groups.” As an interested constituency group, we have an obligation to provide guidance in this process. We look forward to working with Vice Chancellor Katrina Caldwell and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion in exploring the renaming of the School after Ida B. Wells.

The second is in regard to the removal of the Confederate statue on campus. Chancellor Vitter states that the University “conducted a thoughtful and deliberate year-long review of all Southern symbols on our campus” (emphasis added). Here it seems that the Chancellor is referencing the work of the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on History and Context (CACHC). But the CACHC never weighed in on the Confederate statue. In fact, the CACHC was explicitly prevented from doing so. In his original charge to the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on History and Context (CACHC) in August 2016, Chancellor Vitter claimed that “the work on the Confederate Statue is now complete.” However, the “work” on the statue plaque was never open to transparent public discussion due to a flawed process that, as the chancellor stated, necessitated the creation of the expanded, consensual CACHC. The CACHC was only able to evaluate “additional physical sites” on campus. In other words, since the CACHC was never authorized to revisit decisions made before its formation, it never evaluated the Confederate statue for contextualization or removal. Since the CACHC has been dissolved, we look forward to the formation of the new committee outlined in our petition to make a thoughtful, deliberate and publicly transparent review of the Confederate statue’s place on campus.

We believe, along with Chancellor Vitter, that the intentional and sustained implementation of the 2014 Action Plan offers the best way to realizing the university’s stated commitment “to honest and open dialogue about its history and how to make our campuses more welcoming and inclusive.” It was in that spirit of fairness and civility that we signed the petition advocating for the naming of the journalism school after Ida B. Wells, seriously discussing the place of the Confederate statue, and establishing scholarships for black women pursuing degrees in journalism. We ask Chancellor Vitter to engage us in that same spirit as we work toward our common goal of, in his words, making UM “welcoming and inclusive for all.”

Dr. Garrett Felber

Dr. Jarod Roll

Dr. Jessica Wilkerson