Duke University panel to advise on statues, building names

Posted September 1

— A new commission will advise the president of Duke University how to deal with memorials and names of campus facilities when they're challenged in the future, a move that comes weeks after a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee was removed.

The 16-member Commission on Memory and History will provide its report to Duke President Vincent Price by Nov. 17, Duke officials said in a news release Friday. It also will recommend a replacement for the statue of Lee, which Duke removed overnight in August after it was vandalized, said school spokesman Michael Schoenfeld, a commission member.

"The questions about namings and commemorations are constants on campuses," Schoenfeld said in an interview. Without principles to guide officials, a school ends up making "ad hoc decisions based on the heat of the moment," he said. "That's not what we're interested in doing."

In August, Duke removed a Lee statue after it was vandalized as the national debate about monuments to the Confederacy swirled. A statue of Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, was the focus of a violent protest that ended with the death of a counterprotester at a rally opposing white nationalists.

Commission member William Ferris, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said important issues such as civil rights, the Vietnam War and now, Confederate memorials, are typically worked out at the university level.

"It's on the university campuses that controversy and thoughtful reflection have happened since the founding of the nation," said Ferris, senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South. "And it's most appropriate that Duke University ... should address these issues. They will be addressed on every other university campus in the coming years. We can be sure of that."

Duke has experience with issues around names of buildings. In 2014, the school restored Aycock Hall to its original name, East Residence Hall. The name had first been changed in 1912 to honor Gov. Charles Aycock, who promoted education but also led white supremacist campaigns at the turn of the 20th century.

Two years later the school named its central quadrangle after African-American Julian Abele, the architect who designed Duke Chapel and many other parts of the campus. Abele Quad includes more than 30 buildings and spaces that the architect designed.

A statue of Abele is one of many being suggested as a replacement for the displaced Lee, Schoenfeld said.


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