Open letter to the Sewanee community from C’85 alumna

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Photo courtesy of Google Images.

To the Sewanee Community:

I’m saddened by the decision by the VC McCardell to not revoke Charlie Rose’s honorary degree. It’s an embarrassment to the University. It not only dishonors current women students but all of us who have come before. “What have we done on campus?” is not the right question to ask. “What have we said to our alumni and what have we said to future students about the values of The University of the South?” is the question to consider at this juncture.

While I love my school for all that it did for me, I also remember what it didn’t do. It didn’t prepare women for the sexist world of employment that we would face. It didn’t value us when we were athletes, giving us third-rate facilities compared to the men’s sports and no locker rooms with showers for the whole four years I was there. We had to fight for a women’s center for four years, despite it being promised in our first year. There were lots of short comings when it came to offering women a fair and equitable learning experience.

Most recently, I noticed that Sewanee continues to overlook viable women leaders for all its various fundraising campaigns and opportunities to serve on the board of regents. I believe I see what constituency McCardell is courting. It will be short lived. Other institutions of higher learning see value in embracing women in leadership as volunteers, faculty and staff.

However, this Charlie Rose decision goes beyond common sense. I cannot and will not forgive Sewanee for continuing this antiquated thinking now. I’m seeing this through the eyes of a woman graduate and that of my 16-year old son, who will decide what type of school best represents the future he wants. For this, I’m embarrassed.

When you work at a university and make policy, you look ahead in decades, not just years. McCardell is myopic and it will hurt Sewanee. I’m sorry for that.

And in the words of McCardell, him saying he is being more disappointed than hurt, as if this is just about him, well, I’m not hurt. I am surprised at the leadership and I’m sorry that Sewanee seems to be led in a direction that doesn’t acknowledge women graduates.

Perhaps it was a failed experiment and the University just needs to do what they seem to do best: serve men.

I hope that VC McCardell has the grace to realize he made a mistake and correct this error.


Elizabeth Estes Niven C’85

Former Editor-in-chief, The Sewanee Purple


  1. I would propose that the founding fathers of the University left little to question as to the pillars on which this great institution was built.

    From: “History of the University of the South, at Sewanee, Tennessee : from its founding by the southern bishops, clergy, and laity of the Episcopal Church in 1857 to the year 1905”
    The meeting of bishops and clerical and lay delegates on
    Lookout Mountain, near Chattanooga, on July 4, 1857, and
    adoption of a plan of organization for a university.


    was devoted to the subject of the proposed University,
    prefacing the main topic by an admirable resume of the
    reasons which should stimulate alike the patriot and the
    Christian to sustain virtue and intelligence among the
    people as the chief supports of our civil institutions, and
    he emphasizes the position that there can be no sound
    morality which is not founded on religious truths, on
    the facts and doctrines of Christianity, which he affirms
    are the articles of Christian faith, as contained in the
    Apostles Creed, “The prime end aimed at in our projected
    University,” he says, “is to make the Bible the ultimate
    and sufficient standard for the regulation of man’s
    conduct as a rational and accountable being, to cultivate
    the moral affections of the young.” “It is designed to
    found an institution on the most enlarged and liberal
    scale, to engage in its services the best talents, the most
    erudite learning, and the greatest skill and experience
    which ample compensation and the hope of usefulness
    can command; to make its departments commensurate
    with the wants and improvements of the age in every
    field of philosophic research, of scientific investigation
    and of discovery in the arts.” “Its advantages are to be
    offered to all who acknowledge the commonly recognized
    truths and obligations of Christianity, and to exhibit it
    under the decent forms and solemn worship of that church
    of which we are members.” Bishop Otey, with great
    emphasis, disclaims the idea of sectionalism as connected
    with the name. “The name is one of convenient discrip-
    tion; it is no party war cry, no sectional pass word; all
    such interpretations we utterly disclaim.”

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