By State Representative, Leon D. Young
I came across what I consider to be a disturbing article recently. It’s now being reported that the University of Wisconsin Madison will not remove from campus buildings the names of well-known student leaders who were members of a campus Ku Klux Klan society in the early 1900s.
According to the article, a Klan group formed as an interfraternity society in 1919 included student body leaders Porter Butts and Frederic March, whose names are prominently displayed in the Memorial Union. Names of other Klan members are on campus facilities and around Madison.
Butts, who died in 1991, was given the university’s highest honor, the Distinguished Alumni Award, for service and commitment to the university. He helped design the buildings and programs for more than 100 student unions in the U.S. and around the world.
March, who died in 1975, was a Hollywood star of the 1930s and ‘40s – the only actor to win both an Academy Award and Tony Award twice. His best actor Oscars were for roles in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “The Best Years of Our Lives.”
A report from a campus study group acknowledged the compelling argument in favor of removing segregationist names and replacing them with others who made major contributions but did not hold such views. Rather than removing their names from campus buildings, the university has vowed to make “amends” through education. More specifically, the university plans to commit more resources toward recruiting students of color, retaining and graduating them, and making the campus more welcoming to them.
On its face, this all sounds well and good, but let’s examine the track record of the university system’s premier campus. UW-Madison ranks dead last in the Big Ten for its percentage of African-American students. Although, African Americans constitutes 6.6% of the state’s residents, only 3% of the flagship university’s student body identifies as African American. Moreover, this is not a recent development. In truth, African American student have always been woefully under-represented on the UW campus, which suggests a systemic problem that needs to be addressed.
Furthermore, it’s no secret that Wisconsin has been, and continues to be, one of the worst places for people of color in the entire country. And, UW’s tepid commitment to diversity and inclusion is a mere microcosm of the repressive nature that besets the state.
It’s important to mention that not everyone has opted to look the other way regarding this contentious issue. One of the Big Ten’s more enlightened institutions has adopted a more proactive response in putting its segregated past to rest. The University of Michigan Board of Regents voted last month to rename two buildings whose names honor a former president and a former professor, both with racist legacies. In addition to renaming buildings, the governing board created a process to review names of individuals whose history might make them inappropriate to be honored.
In my view, UW’s unwillingness to remove and rename campus buildings that honor individuals that held racist views quite frankly is an insult. More importantly, it sends the wrong message to students of color, who the university (in one breath) alleges that it’s trying to promote a more welcoming school environment.
Here’s the bottom line. UW-Madison can’t have it both ways: purporting to be a welcoming place for students of color on the one hand, while publicly showcasing disturbing reminders of its segregated past on the other. This leads one to ask: What’s wrong with UW-Madison?