As we complete a productive academic year and immerse ourselves in an energetic summer session, we continue to work on important goals related to history, context, and identity.
The University of Mississippi, along with many universities across the country, continues on a journey to acknowledge and address the challenging and complex history around the issues of slavery, injustice, and race. Here on the main campus, we are involved in a profoundly important dialogue to fully understand and articulate our historical truths, while claiming our hard-earned present identity as a national flagship university.
The university has long been committed to honest and open dialogue about its history and how to make our campuses more welcoming and inclusive. In 2014, under the leadership of then-chancellor Dan Jones, guided by recommendations from the 2013 expanded Sensitivity and Respect Committee, the university took another step in that direction. The result is generally referred to as the 2014 action plan.
I realized shortly after becoming chancellor that many people do not realize the tremendous amount of work already done toward these goals, while others see these efforts as potentially threatening to cherished aspects of the university. As a general principle, I think it is important to communicate and keep people engaged and informed, so that we can work most effectively together.
To that end, we have enhanced the website, diversity.OleMiss.edu, which, among other things, gives an ongoing and comprehensive update on the 2014 action plan. We list each of the plan’s six recommendations, along with what has been accomplished and planned. For example, the search we launched this spring for vice chancellor for diversity and community engagement is a key part of Recommendation 1, and the new vice chancellor will help advance Recommendation 2 on developing a portfolio model of diversity and engagement. You can also read about the progress and ongoing work on Recommendations 3 and 4 in dealing with race and advocating the ideals of inclusion and fairness.
I’d particularly like to highlight Recommendation 5, which is about history and context. Beginning last summer, a committee of four experts began working to contextualize the Confederate statue in the Lyceum Circle. The resulting language was inscribed on a plaque installed near the statue in mid-March. I wrote you on March 29 about the committee’s desire to consider further input and reexamine whether the plaque’s language should be changed and, if so, how. After considerable input and study, the committee made its final recommendation, which I have approved, and in the coming months a new plaque will replace the current one and read as follows:
As Confederate veterans were dying in increasing numbers, memorial associations across the South built monuments in their memory. These monuments were often used to promote an ideology known as the “Lost Cause,” which claimed that the Confederacy had been established to defend states’ rights and that slavery was not the principal cause of the Civil War. Residents of Oxford and Lafayette County dedicated this statue, approved by the university, in 1906. Although the monument was created to honor the sacrifice of local Confederate soldiers, it must also remind us that the defeat of the Confederacy actually meant freedom for millions of people. On the evening of September 30, 1962, this statue was a rallying point for opponents of integration.
This historic statue is a reminder of the university’s divisive past. Today, the University of Mississippi draws from that past a continuing commitment to open its hallowed halls to all who seek truth, knowledge, and wisdom.
I commend the committee members for their dedication and good work as we turn to the remaining important work to contextualize campus sites and buildings. As mentioned in my March 29 letter, I am establishing a Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on History and Context that will expand the membership from four to roughly a dozen. I invite you to consider the criteria for committee membership and take part in the nomination process; the deadline is June 30.
The committee’s charge will be to recommend which Oxford campus sites should be contextualized, so as to explain the environments in which they were created or named. The committee will also be charged with designing the content and format to contextualize the sites. Three sites already suggested for contextualization are Johnson Commons, Lamar Hall, and Vardaman Hall. The committee will work during the upcoming academic year and employ a variety of methods along the way to ensure transparency and broad community input.
I want to clear up one area of confusion that arose from Recommendation 6, namely, about considering the implications of calling ourselves “Ole Miss.” Many individuals I’ve talked with felt that our efforts to create a welcoming environment at the university would somehow ultimately lead to restricting use of the term Ole Miss Rebels.
I can assure you that we will continue to use the terms Ole Miss and Rebels as endearing nicknames for the university. Data show that the term Ole Miss is broadly viewed as one of connection and affection, with strongly positive national (and international) recognition. It is one of the more known and respected (and frankly, envied) college brands. People searching on the Web for information about our university are seven times more likely to use the term Ole Miss than University of Mississippi, and the term Ole Miss evokes a more positive image than does even University of Mississippi. Similarly, the term Rebels, which originally was a link to the Confederacy, is used today in a completely different and positive way: to indicate someone who bucks the status quo, an entrepreneur, a trendsetter, a leader. Sharon and I are proud to be Ole Miss Rebels. However, as we continue to use the terms Ole Miss and Rebels, we must always use accompanying images and symbols that are consistent with the positive meanings we advocate.
Since becoming chancellor, I have had opportunities to visit with thousands of people who love this institution and invest their time and resources in our mission to transform lives and communities. I am convinced that together — guided by the UM Creed, informed by our expertise, and with respectful candor — we will successfully come to grips with difficult aspects of our university’s history and move boldly as a national leader to craft a vibrant future. Please accept my sincerest thanks for your continued support and involvement as we move our great flagship university forward.
Jeffrey S. Vitter