Aug. 13, 2015
Dear UT Community:
Shortly after becoming president in June, I appointed a task force to identify options for the statues along the Main Mall that have long been a source of discussion, debate, and more recently controversy. The six statues and the fountain of the Littlefield Memorial are viewed in many ways by the campus community, by visitors, and the public. They represent a part of Texas’ heritage; they reflect the times in which they were created, 1916-1933; and they are a representation of the history of the South and the United States. All history is controversial, including the Civil War and its aftermath. Over time, our perspective on historical figures has evolved, and we have made significant progress in overcoming the legacy of that era, as well as our own history as a segregated university. At the same time, it is the role of a university to study, interpret, and teach history, which can inform the present and guide us in the future.
I thank the task force for its consideration of these difficult issues and the recommendations in the report it presented to me on August 10. After reviewing that report and hearing from many members of the university community, including our alumni and the public, I have decided that the best location for the Jefferson Davis statue is UT’s Briscoe Center for American History. While every historical figure leaves a mixed legacy, I believe Jefferson Davis is in a separate category, and that it is not in the university’s best interest to continue commemorating him on our Main Mall. Davis had few ties to Texas; he played a unique role in the history of the American South that is best explained and understood through an educational exhibit.
The Briscoe Center is the logical location for the Davis statue and can provide a well-curated, scholarly context for its permanent display. As the home of one of the nation’s largest collections of Southern history, and as the keeper of UT Austin’s own history — including the papers of George W. Littlefield, a former regent and major benefactor responsible for the statues and fountain, and sculptor Pompeo Coppini — the Briscoe Center will bring a scholarly depth that enhances the educational value of the Davis statue. The Briscoe Center has long planned a renovation of its facility, including new exhibit space, and my office will help raise the remaining funds needed for its completion.
Additionally, to preserve the symmetry of the Main Mall, we will relocate the statue of President Woodrow Wilson, which stands opposite the statue of Davis, to an appropriate exterior location on campus. The Davis statue will be refurbished for interior display while its site at the Briscoe Center is prepared. I do not foresee replacing these with other statues since their location at the entrance to the Main Mall plaza is aesthetically separate from the other statues on the Main Mall.
The other four figures of the Littlefield Memorialand a nearby inscription will remain in place. James Stephen Hogg, Albert Sidney Johnston, and John Reagan had deep ties to Texas. Robert E. Lee’s complicated legacy to Texas and the nation should not be reduced to his role in the Civil War. Their history will be described in the Briscoe Center. I will consider placing a plaque near the Littlefield Fountain to provide context for the statues and inscription. This combination of locating the Jefferson Davis statue in a center devoted to history and keeping the remaining statues along the Main Mall is both respectful of the heritage that is important to many and serves as a poignant display of our nation’s and university’s history.
Symbols are important, but we must also press ahead to create substantive change at the university. We have made progress in recent years — by the creation of new departments of African American and African Diaspora Studies and Mexican American and Latina/o Studies, and in student and faculty recruitment. We continue to defend the use of race and ethnicity as factors among many in a holistic review of applicants, consistent with U.S. Supreme Court precedents. But much remains to be done. I pledge to continue the work of making UT Austin a leader in both excellence and diversity and fostering an inclusive environment.
I thank everyone who shared their opinion on this important and complex issue, and I ask all of the community to come together to advance UT Austin in education, research, and service to the public.
Gregory L. Fenves, President
The University of Texas at Austin