Photo by Matt Hembree
By Robert Beeland
A distinct tone of proactivity colored Vice-Chancellor John McCardell’s August 29 speech at the Launching the New Year event. “[T]oday’s gathering of the community reminds us of the start of a new academic year and affords an opportunity to chart our course for the year ahead,” McCardell explained.
While McCardell’s speech immediately covered certain expected areas—encouraging enrollment statistics, the University’s Strategic Plan, and the progress of the Stronger Truer Sewanee capital campaign—his rhetoric shifted towards a value-driven call to action as the speech progressed. “[T]wo traits that, in these times of trouble and anxiety and division, we need now more than ever: integrity, first, and then humility,” served as the cornerstone’s of McCardell’s call.
Just over two weeks before the Launching of the New Year event, a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia left nearly 40 injured and 3 dead after violence broke out between protesters and counter-protesters near the site of a statue of former Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Just the day before McCardell’s speech, the New York Times published a list of Confederate monuments across the United States that either had been removed or had been met with proposals to be removed.
Sewanee’s own relation to the Confederacy is inextricably linked to the legacies of its founders, several of whom served within the Confederate States Army. In 2016, The Purple covered the movement of the portrait Sword over the Gown, of University founder Leonidas Polk, from Convocation Hall to the University Archives and Special Collections and its ensuing controversy. Currently featured prominently on campus at the intersection of University and Texas Avenues is a memorial of Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith, who is also buried in the University cemetery.
McCardell, who began his career in academia as a historian, did not outline a concrete plan established by the University for addressing the status of Confederate imagery across campus. Rather, the Vice-Chancellor reaffirmed his support for the University’s Studying Slavery Project which, McCardell explained, “will continue research into the relationship of slavery to the history of our University and will lead a community-wide, broadly consultative effort to develop principles which will guide our treatment of Confederate representations, with the purpose of broadening, not narrowing, our deliberation on such matters and by vigorously opposing any efforts or influences that seek to co-opt this process or turn it to their own purposes.”
“We have seen in recent weeks just what that can mean—in demands to tear things down, to grind foes under, to repair thuggish and repulsive symbols and language, to deny the possibility of competing truths, to refuse to acknowledge that complexity and uncertainty and approximation are the closest we can ever get to understanding our past, living in our present, and shaping our future,” the Vice-Chancellor asserted.
McCardell ended his speech by introducing the University’s “How will I…” website, which will serve to catalog personal commitments made by faculty, staff, and students. By visiting the website, members of the University community may add their own commitments to the growing list.
The Vice-Chancellor professed the commitments he has made to himself and the Sewanee community: “I commit to developing a program in Southern Studies that will endeavor to be the best of its kind among undergraduate institutions. And, I will commit, quite specifically, to having at least one meal a week in McClurg and sitting with people who are different, in one way or another, from me. Finally, I will commit to using my office to do all that I can to maintain a campus that does not need designated “safe spaces” because no space will be unsafe, and where students needing support in times of need will find that support–caringly and fast.”
Repeating the conclusion of his Launching the New Year speech from last year, McCardell quoted esteemed former Sewanee athletic trainer Willie Six: “The best year is the one comin’ up.”