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What would you do . . .
If you ran the university?
Suppose you are the president of a large public university. Suppose this university to be located in the capital of a large state of the former Confederacy. At present the university has a student body of roughly 50,000. The number of alumni is ten times that size.
Universities being universities, your faculty lean liberal. Your state being your state, its population leans conservative. Young people being young people, your students are a mix of those who accept their parents' views and those who reject their parents' views. Which means your student body spans the political spectrum.
Had you held this job forty years ago, one of your principal concerns would have been to cultivate the state legislature, at that time the major source of regular operating revenues. Since then, however, state contributions to your budget have declined, making the university's operation more dependent on contributions from donors, typically alumni. Yet the state has hardly relinquished control. You answer to a board of regents appointed by the governor, a group that unsurprisingly reflects the conservative tilt of the state's politics.
In other words, you answer to several masters, who on many political and social issues can be expected to take opposite sides. Faculty and some students demand, often loudly, that you choose the side favored by the left. The left being the left, this frequently requires a basic change in university policy. Other students and many alums endorse the side favored by the right. The right being the right, this typically involves maintaining tradition, which to many alums embodies fond memories of the university they attended years or decades ago.
Suppose that during a period of heightened general awareness of issues of racial disparity, attention is drawn to your university's song. This song has a tune that is easy to learn and sing. The words are easy too, if somewhat puzzling to outsiders, as the words of school songs often are.
For a century students and alums sang the song at the end of university activities. In college fashion, they embellished the singing with a characteristic hand gesture that culminated in a salute to their alma mater. Particularly proud alums insisted that this song be played or sung at their weddings and funerals. To many of them, the song became the cement that held the generations of past and present students together.
The new attention to the song focused on its origins. During an era of past racial segregation in your state and at your university, the song premiered at an amateur minstrel show, with the singers wearing the blackface makeup that was a standard feature of the minstrel genre.
At that time and for decades after, these circumstances of origin seemed unremarkable. Indeed, they were largely forgotten. Most of those students and alums who came to know and love the song had no idea that there was anything objectionable about it.
But in time, objections were made. Amid removals of statues relating to the Confederacy and the era of segregation, and renamings of buildings and institutions, demands arose to retire the song. Like those other reminders of bad past practices, the song was said to cast an unwelcome shadow over the present. In the case of the university, the song's critics said it made students of color feel unwelcome.
This is a sensitive issue with the university and therefore for you as its president. Black students at the university constitute less than half their proportion in the state's population at large. The university has implemented policies designed to increase this proportion, but these policies have had only modest success. The assertion by the song's critics that it sends an unwelcoming message to the very students you are trying to attract is something you cannot ignore.
Meanwhile the supporters of the song argue that tradition is more important than ever in a time of rapid and disconcerting change. Some of the alums suggest that they will reconsider plans to donate money to the university if it abandons such touchstones to the past.
You are the university's president. What do you do?