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Is There a Liberal-Conservative War Going On in the Administration at Vanderbilt University?

February 1, 2003

Back in the fall, Vanderbilt University announced that it was renaming its Confederate Memorial Hall to Memorial Hall. The press release from Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs Michael J. Schoenfeld states, "the name change reflects efforts by the University to create a positive, inclusive environment, and to ensure that Vanderbilt facilities and symbols do not inadvertently reflect values inconsistent with the University's mission." A plain vanilla Politically Correct (PC) statement.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy (U.D.C.) immediately howled "foul". For a good reason. They were the ones who raised the money to build the hall (and in college tradition, had the right to name the building) back in the '30s as a gift to the Peabody School for Teachers. Ironically, the U.D.C. built the Hall to enable more women to attend Peabody College, a point missed by the PC crowd. They are now going to court asking for their money back.

The uproar increased after Vanderbilt mathematics associate professor, Jonathan Farley (who has a self acknowledged Marxist background), wrote an article in the Tennessean newspaper saying that all confederates soldiers were traitors and should have been executed. Actually, all confederate soldiers were considered traitors but received pardons at the end of the war. (For how senior confederate officers struggled with the quandary of fighting a country they had all sworn to defend when young West Point graduates, reread the section in the book Killer Angels where Longstreet and other generals try unsuccessfully to talk Lee out of "invading " the north prior to Gettysburg.) The execution remark was, of course, taken straight from Lenin's playbook.

Townhall.com (with which rightturns.com is affiliated) ran many articles by conservatives from Paul Craig Roberts to David Horowitz that described all these events as good examples of political correctness run amuck.

I have a decidedly different, yet still conservative, take on what is happening at Vanderbilt. (Full disclosure: I am a 1975 graduate of Vanderbilt; I am named after an Arkansas Confederate infantryman; I am also a descendent of a Mansfield, Massachusetts Union sailor.) Those of you who are regular readers of rightturns.com know that I wrote two articles in 2002 about why I think Vanderbilt's Chancellor Gordon Gee is a closet conservative academic (see rightturns.com archives, 9/1/02 and 9/15/02).

These recent events have not changed my mind, but only reinforced my belief.

As I stated in the above referred to articles, Gee left a short tenure at Brown University after he realized how stifling Ivy League political correctness is to creativity, discussion of ideas, and the open problem solving skills necessary to build a world-class university. At Vanderbilt, he also found political correctness but within an environment that is not as deeply ingrained as in the Ivy league and thus capable of evolving back to a true college atmosphere of open exchanges and debates.

I see the recent events of last fall as part of the gut wrenching change process that Chancellor Gee is bringing to Vanderbilt of defanging political correctness. How?

Point 1: I doubt the decision to change the name of the Confederate Memorial Hall was made by Gee. The way the University handled this is not "Gee-like" at all. I suspect it was an "in your face" effort within a liberal administration that sees where Gee is taking the University to put Gee on the spot or take some of the shine off of him. Gee's name is not used once in the press release announcing the change. I have not heard speak publicly on how he made the decision. Gordon Gee is not usually a quiet man! If he had made the decision himself, I believe he would have used statements like student Will Dodd used in the 9/20/02 edition of the student newspaper, "A name change is not a bad idea in and of itself…, I … suggest renaming the building … 'Southern Memorial Hall' or 'Soldier Memorial Hall'". That would have kept Vanderbilt's uniqueness, its history of being intertwined with all of Southern history. (Yes, there is Southern history other than the Civil War.)

Point 2: This is really an extension of point 1. The U.D.C. recently asked the courts to have Vanderbilt provide the names of the University's administration officials that made the name change. This was so the U.D.C. lawyers would know who to depose for the trial. Vanderbilt sought to deny the request because they feared those named officials would receive threats from the outside. But wait, threats have already occurred, according to the University's lawyers. So I don't buy Vanderbilt's argument at all. I think the University is trying to protect the fact that the name change was a bureaucratic decision made by entrenched politically correct administrators, i.e., an "in your face" decision as described in Point 1.

Points 1 & 2 are not meant to imply that Gee is not in charge. Any effective leader has to choose his battles at times. I suggest Gee decided to not choose this as one of his battles.

Point 3: Lastly, Gee DID respond publicly to the uproar from Farley's comments in the December 8, 2002 Tennessean. I now quote from the article. "Vanderbilt faculty have the necessary right of free speech and free expression in a public forum just as do any other citizens of this country." "…we (do not) require members of our faculty to have our imprimatur in order to speak or to publish their personal opinions." "Academic civility ensures that all members of a university know they can think and say what they wish on issues without fear of harm to their person or their livelihood - but confers the equally vital responsibility to defend their statements." " … a student recently observed to me (Gee) that we especially need to show respect to individuals even when they neglect to show respect to others." "Unpopular or provocative views do not and cannot disrupt the system held in place by this responsibility." "Ideas, both those workable at the time of their origination and those that seem wayward, are all eventually judged by their integrity and merit. A professor whose ideas degrade his scholarly work will lose the respect of his colleagues and the regard of students. The tyranny of rhetoric and illusion does not have a place here." (Note: Farley has left Vanderbilt to become a Visiting Professor somewhere in Massachusetts; point to Gee.) The underlines are all mine. To me, these words open a hole wide enough in the politically correct defensive line (a football analogy) for conservative professors to "drive a truck through" (yeah, I know, another football analogy, but hey, I am a southerner) to Vanderbilt.

I plan to continue to send in my money to Vanderbilt, but with a note stating my support for Chancellor Gee's fight against the dominance of political correctness. I don't look for conservative dominance, just balance. So don't beat up Chancellor Gee. He is righting the good ship Vanderbilt, though slowly and painfully.


Sam T. Harper graduated cum laude from Vanderbilt University.  Following a tour in the US Navy and a stint as Operations Manager at Roadway Express, he earned his MBA from Stanford University Graduate School of Business.  He was a contributor to “In Search of Excellence,” the best selling business book of all time.  Sam was also Manager, Economic Planning & Analysis at Sohio Petroleum, Partner and Chief Financial Officer at investment-banking firm Bridgemere Capital, and Chief Operating Officer of the Institute for Contemporary Studies, a San Francisco Bay Area-based think tank and international publishing firm that specializes in self-governing and entrepreneurial public policy.  Sam was a chairman of the San Francisco Republican party and the GOP co-host of California Political Review on KALW-FM in San Francisco.  Sam is currently the co-owner of the Tennessee based Institute for Local Effectiveness Training, LLC – a management consulting, training, and coaching firm.