The recommendations of the task force at the University of Missouri to add context and complexity to the life of Thomas Jefferson was rejected by the University of Missouri System Board of Curators. To me the proposal items made a lot of sense. They were reasonable. At the site of a controversial statue of Thomas Jefferson on campus, they wanted to include alongside the accomplishments of the 3rd president the fact that he was a slave owner. The proposal also included a proposed Legacy Walk to commemorate the contributions of Black Americans, free and enslaved, to the building of the university. And both items included access to digital apps for additional information and resources. So why was it rejected? Let me respond to the reasons given by the board.
- “You can’t add enough context in a 300 word sign.” (Curator Jeff Layman)
The “we don’t have enough [insert resource here]” excuse. This is the excuse that tries to focus on a lack of resources to accommodate all that needs to be done in order to change. We need a bigger sign for more words. We have to agree on what to put on the sign. If we have a bigger sign, we need additional funds. Lack of resources is often the excuse organizations use to not even try. If we can’t guarantee to do the whole thing, then we may as well not even start. In other words, if we are limited to this small sign, it’s not enough, so we can’t do anything. Mind you, the proposal included a suggestion for a QR code near the sign where people could find more information and additional resources for reading. This indicates to me, the task force recognized the physical space limitations of a 300 word sign and wanted to make access to more comprehensive information easier with a smartphone app. But they still said no.
However, I challenge everyone to note that we may not live to see the changes that will come from this current reckoning or fight for racial justice. That doesn’t mean we can’t be a part of the change for a time or even start the engine of change in our organization. We have to start the car before we can even think of where we might go. I always urge clients to start small anyway. I work with them to understand, this is not a one-and-done enterprise, but a long-term process. Just because you cannot fund the whole journey, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t start it. In most cases, once you have begun and the work gains traction, money tends to appear to continue the journey. And to quote Lao Tzu, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
- “Context is a slippery slope, where does it end?”(Curator Todd Graves)
The don’t make it so complicated excuse. It’s funny to me how people are always arguing why they shouldn’t be pigeon-holed into being thought of as only one thing. But when it comes to historical figures, that is all they want to do. Teaching history without nuance is dangerous. Yes it is efficient. Yes it makes it easier for people to remember the lessons we want them to. In doing so, it presents values and an understanding of the world with no place for comprehensive understanding, questions or even the belief that people can be two things at one time.
I think they are afraid that if they put “Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner,” on the sign that it will somehow be the only thing people remember about him. That it will erase all of his other contributions as a founding father and former President. And the reason they fear that is they know the education system generally does not teach how complex people can be. You can’t be a hero if you were a slave owner. You can’t love Dr. Seuss, because his early books contained racial caricatures. People grow. People can change. One action or decision does not have to overshadow the entirety of a person’s life. The board curators know in their hearts we do not teach our citizenry how to deal with complexity, so they voted to keep it simple. This feeds the cycle of being satisfied with the status quo that restricts critical thinking and has contempt for a comprehensive accounting of history and historical figures.
- “The task force exceeded it’s mandate by issuing recommendations.” (Curator Darryl Chatman).
The technicality/bureaucratic excuse. This isn’t what we asked them to do, so even though they have done more than we asked and have presented reasonable ideas, we can’t possibly support this. This is what I see most often acting as an obstacle to change within institutions and organizations. I understand the importance of roles and responsibilities in the operation of a business or institution. But, when people use those structures to shut down contributions or even block solutions, that makes no sense. Why is it that in any other context, like school or work, going above and beyond is rewarded and often used as an example for others to follow? We get mad and rage at teachers or the school board when they stifle our kids’ creativity or outside-the-box thinking. American culture prides itself on exactly these things when it comes to innovations and advancing technology or science, but here we want to stop it. It is a double standard that no one wants to talk about.
The task force proposal was actually a compromise to what had been demanded by students and others last year. In 2020, there was a widely circulated petition to remove this statue of Thomas Jefferson from campus. But these demands are not just a phenomenon of the racial reckoning and pandemic of last year. They go back to 2015 when months of protests and activism by students over reports of racist incidents on campus being ignored by the administration led to the resignation of the UM system president Tim Wolfe and Columbia campus Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin. Don’t turn down good ideas because we didn’t come up with them ourselves or because it wasn’t the assignment.
In conclusion, I am not surprised by the decision of the curators, because as you can see the excuses are nothing new. But the steps I believe to be the important ones are to dispute the excuse AND expose the underlying ideas that fuel them. These kinds of excuses are an insult. I’m not sure if people see that. These excuses assume we cannot handle complexity or nuance. They assume we aren’t committed to racial justice. They assume the only people who care about any of this are people of color. They assume the journey is not worth it, if we can’t be there to finish it. This may be true for some, but I would argue not for most.
I recognize various privileges allow me to write and think about these things in ways that others cannot. But I believe everyone deserves dignity and respect in their daily lives. So why don’t our institutions, especially public education institutions like University of Missouri grant us the basic dignity and respect of treating us like we have a brain? The answer: Because these systems and institutions do not care about nor actually serve people. And until we come to terms with that truth and the insidious way it is embedded throughout all American life, then this will not be the first or last time we will see simple and reasonable solutions smacked down.