Benton mural decision
March 25, 2002
Over the last few weeks, an extended discussion has taken place, with many opportunities for people to express their views and to contact me directly. This inclusive conversation reflects the commitment of this university and this campus to thorough debate about important issues. It also provided the necessary foundation for the decisions that I have made.
I want to thank everyone who has participated in this discussion.
First, I want to express my appreciation to the leadership and members of the Black Student Union who have so eloquently expressed their concerns in our meetings.
I also want to thank other IU students as well as the faculty, staff and alumni who sent letters and e-mails, and spoke with me in person, in order to provide their perspective.
I was also pleased to hear from individuals throughout the state of Indiana who offered their comments.
And I would like to thank the news media for presenting extensive coverage of the issues that have been discussed over the last several weeks. I would particularly commend the IDS for its vigorous efforts to invite commentary from the entire IUB community.
Finally, I am indebted to Kathleen Foster, Nanette Esseck Brewer and Margaret Contompasis for their very informative book, Thomas Hart Benton and the Indiana Murals, which has helped me greatly in understanding the history and composition of the murals.
Today, we stand at the intersection of two extremely important issues that affect not only the Bloomington campus, but our whole society and, indeed, all human societies.
First, there is the commitment to diversity, so that people will be judged, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, by the content of their character rather than by their color or other personal demographic characteristics.
And then there is the commitment to freedom of expression, so that the liberty of all people regardless of their color or other personal demographic characteristics will be preserved.
These two commitments are NOT antagonistic. Indeed, they are necessarily interdependent. Freedom of expression requires difference, of perspective and of opinion, to be any freedom at all. And without freedom of expression, diversity is restricted, oppressed and excluded from powerful positions in the society.
Why, then, have African-American students at least three times in the last 13 years spoken out against having one of the Benton murals displayed in Woodburn 100? I believe I have some understanding of why this has occurred, but first I'd like to focus on the mural itself and the artist who created it.
One of the two Benton murals in Woodburn 100, the one officially known as "Cultural Panel 10: Parks, the Circus, the Klan, the Press", has a long history of exciting controversy. It was controversial when it was still just a drawing, and this controversy continued when the actual murals were completed and displayed.
Let me refer to Kathleen Foster's description of the panel and its history in order to try to understand why this particular panel has been so provocative:
Benton was not a Hoosier. He was a free-thinking artist who had spent his youthful years in that sinful city of Paris. So for him, working on commission, to include the KKK in the mural that was to represent the state of Indiana at the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago was a radical act. He was not going to let Indiana hide the shameful aspects of its history.
In other words, Benton was committed to both diversity and freedom of expression. The images he created are powerful and disturbing, and deliberately so.
But if in Benton's day the mural was presumably disturbing to whites, particularly those in power, why is it now so disturbing to some African-Americans? Having listened carefully, and tried to see it from the perspective of an African-American, particularly an African-American student, it seems to me that there are several reasons.
First, and by far most important, although the KKK attacked whites as well as blacks, the KKK was particularly vicious in its attacks on black individuals. Thus, African-Americans have a very strong negative reaction to the Klan itself and to representations of the Klan. Some of our African-American students have told me that members of their family suffered directly at the hands of the KKK. It is crucial that we acknowledge the horrors that the Klan inflicted on innocent people, particularly innocent black people.
There are also some other reasons why the mural is so disturbing to many of our African-American students:
So, if you are an African-American, if you don't know the history of the mural, if you have no context in which to interpret it, and if you have no choice about seeing it, it's quite likely that this will be an unpleasant and discomforting experience.
And it's particularly discomforting on a campus located in Indiana, where the 1930 lynchings in Marion have not been forgotten, at least not in the black community.
It's also particularly discomforting on a campus located in southern Indiana, where on March 13 of this year, in Evansville, a police officer was accused of and suspended for sketching a picture depicting Ku Klux Klan members staring down a well at a black man.
And it's particularly discomforting on a campus where African-American students are only 4 percent of our student body and 4 percent of our faculty.
So how, in this particular moment with this particular issue, do we affirm that necessary interdependence of diversity and freedom of expression? As many people know from reading the newspapers, and I know from all the various communications I've received, people of good will do not agree on how to proceed, and this disagreement cuts across racial, ethnic, gender and occupational groups.
What follows, then, is my own deeply felt position, respectfully developed after careful listening and much reflection.
I am convinced that moving or covering the mural would be morally wrong, because it would, in effect, do what Benton refused to do: that is, it would hide the shameful aspects of Indiana's past. I might note that trying to move the mural would probably damage it, perhaps destroy it, but the major issue here is a moral one, not one of cost or even of preservation.
I am also convinced that the major issue running throughout all of the discussions and conversations over these last several weeks is not, in fact, the Benton mural, but is instead the status of diversity on our campus. The real issue, the real test of character, for Indiana University Bloomington is the strength of its commitment to diversity.
And on this test, the returns are uneven. Certainly, IU has a strong historic commitment to diversity, dating back to the 1940s when then-President Herman B Wells insisted that athletic teams, recreational facilities, dining halls, dormitories and local restaurants no longer be segregated. IU also has some very prominent African-American alumni, including, for example, United States Secretary of Education Rod Paige.
Moreover, we have some good signs for the future. In this current academic year, we have:
But there is no question that we need a firmer, stronger, more vigorous and more joyous commitment to diversity on this campus. When we get as excited about increasing diversity as we do about making a breakthrough scientific discovery, or developing a new theory, or producing a great work of art or being in the Final Four, then we'll know that we're truly committed!
Here are three major ways in which we can enlist the Benton mural in the cause of diversity. That's what it was meant to do in 1933, and that's what we need it to do now.
First, we must dramatically revise and refashion the educational program addressing the mural. Here's what we have to do:
Providing an adequate educational program means that we must monitor the use of the room much more closely. Faculty who want to teach in Woodburn 100 will be asked if they are willing to invite the expert team into their classes. If they are not willing to do this, they cannot have the room. Woodburn 100 is also used for orientation sessions and for the administration of tests to classes that are not conducted in the room. If it is not possible (because of time constraints) to provide the educational program in these instances, then these activities will have to take place in a different room. From now on, noone can use the room unless the expert team is invited in to show the video and have a discussion with the group. There will be no exceptions to this policy.
The use of the room can also be considered. In 1941, as I mentioned earlier, Woodburn 100 was an auditorium. Now it is a classroom, the largest on campus and used by many classes. One could argue that a classroom is not as public as an auditorium. And it's possible that the reason why such a strong educational program is needed is because the mural does not stay in the public consciousness, since only a relatively small number of people, mostly students, ever see it. At least one, perhaps two, classrooms are expected to be built on the campus over the next five to 10 years. With additional classrooms available, it might be possible to return Woodburn 100 to its original state as a public auditorium, used for public events.
Second, we need to create more art, more diverse art, on the Bloomington campus -- art that will celebrate, recognize and memorialize the multicultural past and present of both Indiana and Indiana University, as well as the importance of diversity for education. We also need to strengthen our commitment to multicultural artists by commissioning their work, hiring them on our faculty, and inviting them to campus for exhibits and conferences. Let's put IUB on the artistic map as a center for vigorous, exciting and (yes) controversial art by the multicultural artists of today.
This, of course, will be an expensive proposition. In order to secure the necessary financial support, the Indiana University Foundation has established the "One for Diversity" Fund. A campus-wide committee reporting to the chancellor will oversee the use of this Fund. The co-chairs of the committee will include both a student and a faculty artist; nominations for co-chairs will be made by the Black Student Union and the Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts.
By calling the fund "One for Diversity" we emphasize that each of us on this campus must take responsibility for enhancing respect for and commitment to diversity. We build diversity one by one, step by step, person by person, and by contributions to the fund, both small and large. In less than a week, we have obtained a total of $12,000 from the Office of the President, the IU Foundation and personal donations from senior administrators. I will personally engage in fund-raising for this project, and I hope that many more contributions, from one dollar to one million dollars, will be forthcoming.
Third, and most important, we must develop a stronger commitment to diversity on this campus and increase diversity among our faculty, staff and students. Our position as a campus must be clear to all our new students from day one. Thus, we will create a section on diversity to be presented in Woodburn 100 to all students who participate in summer orientation. This program will reach 95 percent of all first-year students. I will ask the Black Student Union and the IU Student Association to work with our Student Affairs and Enrollment Services offices to develop this orientation program.
Despite a very tight budget situation on our campus, I will continue to provide strong support for the Bloomington campus Office of Diversity and Student Support, under the leadership of Bloomington Vice Chancellor (and IU Vice President) Charlie Nelms. In particular, my office will provide the following funds:
I will also work closely with the deans to make sure that we are all making a maximum effort to increase diversity on this campus, and to integrate diversity issues into the curriculum. We should not have to have a Benton mural controversy every five years or so in order to educate all of us on such fundamental issues as race and freedom of expression. I call upon the faculty to rise to this challenge and extend this teaching moment throughout the academic year and into the fabric of the teaching and learning that takes place on our campus.
And to make sure that the issue of diversity stays front and center on the campus, each October, on the anniversary of my installation, I will deliver a State of Diversity address. Here, I will review our campus goals for diversity, our accomplishments in meeting them, and the distance we still have to go. Progress in diversity only occurs if individuals are accountable. Since I am responsible for this campus, I am accountable for its diversity.
In conclusion, I want to point out that the combination of a powerful mural and motivated students has brought us here today to a much stronger commitment to diversity on the Bloomington campus. Both the Benton mural and the students remind us that we must remain vigilant about injustice and never assume that it has vanished from our midst.
We need the students and the Benton mural to keep our eyes on the true prize of diversity, respect and human dignity.
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