What a rock has to do with racism

On August 6, the University of Wisconsin–Madison removed a 42-ton boulder formerly known as Chamberlin Rock from our main campus. This was not, as some have assumed, a knee-jerk decision. Rather, it came after more than a year of in-depth conversations with stakeholders from across the spectrum, engaging in the process of shared governance.

Members of the Wisconsin Black Student Union and Wunk Sheek (a Native American student organization) met with the Campus Planning Committee to present their point of view and the harm they described. That Committee also heard from members of the geology department, researchers, historians, campus leadership, the Ho Chunk tribe, and others. The Campus Planning Committee, after thoughtful deliberation, recommended moving the rock and I endorsed this action.

The process began in the summer of 2020. I listened as WBSU and Wunk Sheek members explained why they saw the rock as a symbol of anti-Blackness. I’m sure you remember that time. It was the first summer of COVID-19 and our campus community was bewildered, overwhelmed and in pain. On May 25, George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, sparking a protest movement around the world.

As chancellor, one of my responsibilities is to build a community that supports each student who studies here. We want to hear about students’ lived experience in the campus community. The students who came to me to ask for the removal of Chamberlin Rock were not performing. They were thoughtful. They were seeking change and interrogating the past and its impact on the present in their own daily lives. And they were brave. The process was a reasoned and deliberative one, viewing the question of the rock through different perspectives, experiences, and practicalities.

To assume they were doing this for other motives, as some have done, is to be something worse than cynical. It is to be uncurious.

The rock, they said, had a negative impact on campus climate as African American students, on their own lives, and they asked us to remove it. Students knew of the rock’s association with a vile racial slur in the 1920s because the rock is part of the campus cultural landscape tour in which, as an effort to own and learn from the mistakes of the past, we acknowledge that history. The slur’s direct, documented association with the rock provided a compelling foundation for the proposed change.

Some will tell you that a rock is just a rock. That to fear harm from an inanimate object is prescientific, irrational. But to be human is to imbue objects with meaning. It’s why we offer flowers when we mourn or love, why we all have keepsakes stowed away in our drawers and closets, and why people unknowingly begin to whisper when they approach the U.S. Constitution in the National Archives. To be sure, the rock is an innocent object, in which we invest meaning. This is a conversation about its symbolic associations, which have intense meaning to some and no meaning to others. When we made the decision to move the rock, we listened to those who saw a legacy of racism and present-day pain where others saw a mere rock.

Our geologists wanted to preserve the rock. They saw a unique pre-Cambrian glacial erratic (a rock carried hundreds or thousands of miles in glaciers until it was left behind when the glacier melted) which they sent their students to study. As a result, we chose to relocate the boulder to university-owned land southeast of Madison, where it remains accessible for teaching purposes. By some estimates, the rock traveled to Wisconsin from Canada some two billion years ago. The forces that smoothed its edges, the landscape it traveled, are hard to know. But curiosity drives us to find out more and to understand its history and its intersection with our own.

At UW–Madison, like many institutions, we are working to acknowledge the often painful history of racism and other forms of exclusion on campus. Three years ago, I commissioned a study of the history of groups associated with the Ku Klux Klan on campus. Based on that study’s recommendations, I funded a public history project to investigate and uncover the historical experiences of marginalized groups on campus, whose story is often not part of our traditional campus histories. I strongly believe that if we do not acknowledge both the good and the bad parts of our history, we cannot construct a better future. That’s why I took seriously the symbolic concerns associated with Chamberlin Rock.

It’s also important to note that the rock is not a well-known campus monument. If I had to guess, I would estimate that many of our students and alumni did not know there was something called “Chamberlin Rock” on campus prior to the recent publicity and, if asked, few could have told you where it was located. If one is going to move a campus object, you have to ask to whom it has meaning. While the rock has clear symbolic meaning for those students asking for its removal, for many other students the rock has had limited meaning.

In the midst of all of this, few people have said anything about President Chamberlin, to whom the rock was dedicated. He is clearly unimplicated in any modern symbolic meaning placed on this rock. But President Chamberlin’s memory was important enough that people in the past created something by which to honor him, and that decision should be respected. Colleagues on campus have prepared a new plaque honoring President Chamberlin which will be placed in Weeks Hall, which houses the Geosciences Department, which was President Chamberlin’s home department.

Creating a more inclusive environment in our universities and our society is a difficult task, but a critical one in our contentious, polarized times. Progress is made incrementally, with real ¬– not performative – change. Higher education is deeply invested in this process and UW–Madison is no exception. That’s why, at the same time we were discussing this symbol with students, we were also expanding a fundraising campaign to recruit and retain more diverse students and faculty. It’s named for Mabel Watson Raimey and William Smith Noland, the first Black woman and man to graduate from the university. We’ve already raised nearly $50 million. That’s just one example of the tangible actions we’re taking.

Outsiders, such as those in the national media, don’t know our story or our history. They may not read deeply enough to see our decisions on this rock in the context of scores of other actions undertaken last summer. They may only think of a world-class research university where vitamin D enrichment was invented, the first embryonic stem cell line was developed. But we know that a committed campus community learns and grows together. We continue to be curious about our past and how it has shaped who we are. Chamberlin Rock is part of that history.