Thoughts on the Robert E. Lee Statue Removal from Duke Chapel

I became chair of the Academic Council at Duke on July 1, 2017, and was chatting with the Provost a few weeks ago and we agreed there “weren’t any hot button issues” on tap for the Fall semester. That, of course, is no longer true.

I support President Price’s decision to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee from the Duke Chapel Entrance, as well as with his commitment to preserve the statue in a way that will allows students, faculty and all of us to learn from it. The creation of a commission of faculty, students, staff, trustees and members of the broader Durham community to help guide the next steps shows that this will be an ongoing process. The removal of the statue is best understood as the beginning of a new chapter, not an ending.

Duke is a relatively young University, and I think this new chapter may provide a book end of what I often think of as the beginning of modern Duke–the Bassett Affair of 1903 (the University was then called Trinity College). Professor Bassett wrote that Booker T. Washington and Robert E. Lee were the two greatest Southerners of the previous 100 years:

….he inserted a sentence praising the life of Booker T. Washington and ranking him second in comparison to Robert E. Lee of Southerners born in a hundred years. Such a sentiment invited controversy at a time when race baiting was commonplace due to the revival of bitter partisan politics with the division of the Democratic Party, the rise of the Populist third party, and the revival of the Republican Party. State Democratic leaders in nearby Raleigh who were also represented on the Trinity College Board of Trustees demanded that Professor Bassett be fired. When parents were urged to withdraw their children from the college and churchmen were encouraged not to recommend the college to prospective students, Bassett offered his resignation.

The Trinity College Board of Trustees did not accept Bassett’s resignation, a founding chapter in Duke’s history that made clear the critical principle of freedom of speech for the University. Of course, it was non-controversial to so-praise General Lee in 1903, while today his likeness is the source of controversy.

The common denominator then and now is the life of the mind that should be the heart of the University, demonstrated first and foremost by the faculty and students engaging in scholarship, teaching and learning. This is a big moment for Duke and our country, and I believe that the University has special process and educational responsibilities not only to the members of our community, but to society at large. We have a chance to model that difficult issues can be navigated truthfully, respectfully and openly, and if done well, we can help to make our world a better place.

May we be up to the challenge.

About Don Taylor
Professor of Public Policy at Duke University (with appointments in Business, Nursing, Community and Family Medicine, and the Duke Clinical Research Institute). I am one of the founding faculty of the Margolis Center for Health Policy, and currently serve as Chair of Duke's University Priorities Committee (UPC). My research focuses on improving care for persons who are dying, and I am co-PI of a CMMI award in Community Based Palliative Care. I teach both undergrads and grad students at Duke. On twitter @donaldhtaylorjr

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