Confronting our campus history

Our university’s history includes much to celebrate, and we talk frequently about these positive stories. Today, however, we must reckon with something we should all regret: the history of racism and exclusion on our campus.

Last fall, following the deadly violence in Charlottesville, I charged an ad-hoc study group to look into the history of UW-Madison student organizations that bore the name of the Ku Klux Klan.

I asked them to help our campus in understanding this history and to suggest how we can best remember and redress it. If we are to be a welcoming and inclusive community, we have to confront the injustices of the past.

The study group has now completed its work and produced a report. Members found that between 1919 and 1926, there were two UW–Madison student organizations that took the name “Ku Klux Klan.” One group was affiliated with the national white supremacist group “Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.” The other was an interfraternity society whose members included many well-known student leaders and which was unaffiliated with any larger organization. (Read a news release about the study group.)

This report does not make for comfortable reading, nor should it. It makes clear that the history our campus needs to confront is not merely that of these two groups or a particular set of individuals, but “a pervasive culture of racial and religious bigotry, casual and unexamined in its prevalence, in which exclusion and indignity were routine, sanctioned in the institution’s daily life, and unchallenged by its leaders.” This was undoubtedly the case between 1919 and 1926, when the existence of these two groups appears to have been generally accepted (or at any rate broadly uncontroversial). It offers explicit, painful, shameful examples of the campus community’s treatment of Black and Jewish students and of Native Americans, who in this era were entirely excluded from the student body.

The study group considered the question of renaming campus spaces. Members concluded that before engaging in any such discussion, the university first needs to do some substantial work to both address this broader history and reinvest in institutional change, in part to assure that UW-Madison’s “reckoning with this history … consist of a great deal more than the purging of unpleasant reminders.”

Some members of the interfraternity society went on to careers of significance. Two of them — actor Fredric March and Porter Butts, the first director of the Wisconsin Union — have spaces named in their honor in the Memorial Union in recognition of contributions during their later lives, contributions that included working for greater inclusivity in different domains. Butts refused to allow segregated groups to use the Union. March fought the persecution of Hollywood artists, many of them Jewish, in the 1950s by the House Un-American Activities Committee.  This underscores the complex and even conflicting stories that are often present in people’s lives, as well as the potential for learning and growth.

The co-chairs of the study group, Dr. Floyd Rose and Dr. Stephen Kantrowitz, presented two proposals to acknowledge and address the wrongs of the past: a campus history project that seeks to identify and give voice to those who experienced and challenged prejudice on campus; and a commitment to current programs designed to increase diversity and create a more inclusive community.

Here’s how we’re responding:

  • I am committing significant university resources to a public history project that will document and share the voices of those on campus who endured, fought and overcame prejudice, not just in the early 1900s but throughout the history of the university. Dr. Kantrowitz, Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of History, and a second member of the study group, Dr. Christy Clark-Pujara, an associate professor of history in the Department of Afro-American Studies, have agreed to convene a group over the summer to design a process for the implementation of this project and to recommend ways to make the resulting information publicly available and visible. For instance, imagine an interactive exhibit in the Memorial Union that shares the experiences of Black students in the early 1900s, with a short history of what they faced on campus and first-hand accounts told by those who lived it (or by their children or grandchildren.)  We can similarly present the lived experiences of Jewish students in the 1930s, the experiences of Native American and Latinx students in the 1960s, the experiences of LGBTQ students before and after Stonewall, or the history of Vietnam protests on campus and the experiences of those who were part of that era.
  • To expand our curricular offerings that deal with the experiences of underrepresented groups in this country and to expand the diversity of our faculty, I am funding a proposal from the four ethnic studies divisions to hire four new faculty members, each of whom will be jointly appointed with other departments, over the next year.
  • In another effort to expand faculty diversity, we will be allocating new resources to the recruitment of top scholars from underrepresented groups in the coming year. Details of this initiative are still being developed and will be announced publicly in fall 2018, but it is clear that we need to expand diversity among our faculty.
  • Finally, we are already in the midst of implementing a number of new programs designed to expand both access and affordability among first-generation and lower-income groups. We are launching Badger Promise (aimed at first-generation transfer students) and Bucky’s Tuition Promise (aimed at all low and moderate-income Wisconsin students), and we expect both to increase underrepresented students from Wisconsin.

For a complete list of actions related to these recommendations, visit this page.

I want to thank the members of the study group and especially the co-chairs Dr. Rose, president of 100 Black Men of Madison, and Dr. Kantrowitz, who has been involved in the Justified Anger Coalition’s African-American history courses. I am grateful for their thoughtful analysis and forceful recommendations, and for providing us a path forward. You can read the full report here.

I recognize that examining this history can be personally challenging and want to highlight the resources available through the Multicultural Student Center; the Dean of Students Office; Division of Diversity, Equity and Educational Achievement and University Health Services.

Remembering our history is necessary, even when painful. It gives respect to those who suffered, and it motivates us to do better as we go forward. Our task is to create a campus that encourages individual and institutional openness and inclusion for all its members.