UA administrators' decision to add context to the presence of J. William Fulbright's name and likeness on campus, rather than remove it, has left some Black students, alumni and employees feeling dismissed by the university community to which they belong.
The UA System Board of Trustees voted July 28 to remove former Arkansas Gov. Charles Brough’s name from the dining hall formerly known as Brough Commons, citing his involvement in the Elaine Race Massacre of 1919. The board also voted to keep the name of the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences intact and to leave the former senator’s statue in its current location behind Old Main, despite Fulbright’s past as a segregationist.
“Specific concerns center on his decision to sign the Southern Manifesto, unwillingness to challenge (Gov.) Orval Faubus during the Little Rock Central High School Crisis, opposition to the Civil Rights Bills of 1957 and 1964, and vote against the Voting Rights Bill of 1965”, former Chancellor Joe Steinmetz wrote in a letter in May listing his recommendations to UA System President Don Bobbitt.
Steinmetz recommended that Fulbright's name remain on the college, but that the statue be moved from its prominent location to an alternative spot where it could serve as an educational tool about Fulbright's complicated legacy. However, Bobbitt presented an altered proposal which the board approved unanimously, calling for the addition of contextualizing information to the Fulbright statue in its current location.
Steinmetz made his recommendations following the Black Student Caucus’s summer 2020 call for the removal of Brough and Fulbright’s names and Fulbright’s statue, and the formation of an advisory committee of students and faculty members. The committee members recommended the removal of the statue and both names in late spring 2021.
Daniel Webster, a 2021 UA graduate and former student member of the Committee to Evaluate J. William Fulbright’s Presence at the UofA, said the university’s response to the movement was painfully slow given that the BSC’s members made their demands during summer 2020.
“That's a ridiculous timeline,” Webster said. “Especially since you have such turnover in a higher education atmosphere, so many students either graduated in December or were about to graduate in May. So this thing that they fought for so hard, they didn't get to see (reach) fruition.”
Will Reid, a senior, said the removal of Brough’s name, but not Fulbright's, makes the decision sting even more. It shows the university is capable of making changes, but is choosing not to when it comes to Fulbright, Reid said.
“If he was alive today, he wouldn’t really approve of me and other Black students being in his department, receiving his scholarship and eating in his (mother’s) dining hall,” Reid said.
Bobbitt’s recommendations and the board vote came after the Arkansas Legislature passed Act 1003 of 2021 on Feb. 9. The law prohibits the removal or relocation of monuments on public property without approval from the Arkansas History Commission.
Anthony DiNicola, the university’s inclusion liaison, said it is important to note that even if all administrators and the Board of Trustees agreed on the statue’s removal, relocating it is now a crime.
“Now, you know there are reports I’ve heard that (the law) was directly in response to this debate that was happening,” DiNicola said.
Although the law allows for the History Commission to grant waivers, applying for such a permission is impossible at this time, Bobbitt said in an email.
“As far as I am aware, the rules for making an appeal to the Historical Commission have not been finalized,” Bobbitt said.
DiNicola thinks if UA administrators really want to make students feel comfortable and welcomed, they have to listen when they speak up, he said.
“To say we want to invite more people to this institution, we have to make sure that we’re also moving the furniture and making sure our policies and procedures are actually welcoming,” DiNicola said.
Webster thinks the Fulbright decision highlights the neglect administrators have shown toward Black students, which negatively affects those students’ sense of belonging, he said.
“A lot of students are tired of giving their opinion and it being ignored,” Webster said. “So I feel like a lot of Black students in particular on campus have given so much of themselves to the institution in order to try to make it better for people like them, and it's been met with a resounding silence.”
While he cannot speak for other committee members, Webster was disappointed, but not surprised by the board and state legislature’s decisions, because many Arkansas legislators are UA graduates, Webster said. It felt like a “smack in the face” to the members of the committee and their months of work, he said.
“I wouldn't say that I wasted time on the committee, because I did learn a lot,” Webster said. “But, that being said, I do feel like I know now that I’m going to have to live with my college degree being from a college that is named after a segregationist.”