Vincent Price, newly arrived as president of Duke University, must be feeling like someone who landed a helicopter in a whirlwind. But it must be said that in dealing with his first crisis – part, really, of a national crisis – Price engineered a smooth landing.
He ordered a statue of Robert E. Lee removed from the entrance to Duke Chapel after it had been vandalized earlier last week in the midst of a national uproar over such monuments following a tragedy in Charlottesville, Va. in which a young woman was killed. The ensuing response from President Trump was embarrassing, as he seemed to blame those opposing a right-wing rally as much as he did those who organized it. The president’s monumental mishandling of the tragedy and his failure of leadership has spurred a chaotic nationwide conversation about the place of Confederate monuments around the South.
Lee, whose descendants have criticized the romanticized notion of the Old Confederacy conveyed by statues – and indicated they wouldn’t oppose the removal of monuments to their ancestor, the legendary Confederate leader – likely wouldn’t have been a fan of the monuments. Following the Civil War, he moved in a quiet way to bring reconciliation to a divided country.
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Price did exactly the right thing in ordering the defaced statue removed from the chapel. He said he was acting first to protect the safety of students and to reinforce the “deep and abiding values of our university.” Price also said he hoped his decision would provide “an opportunity for us to learn and heal.”
Also on the mark was Duke Chapel Dean Luke Powery, who amplified the president’s remarks in saying that the space where the statue used to be (it was removed over the weekend) “represents a hole in the heart of the United States and the ongoing struggles of racism, hatred and bigotry – all the things we’re seeing in our streets. We haven’t come as far as perhaps we thought we had come as a nation.” Powery said, however, that he hoped conversation about the statue and related issues would offer “the possibility of healing that will come.”
Hearing what the dean had to say, it was hard not to think it was a shame he wasn’t on the White House speech-writing staff last week. For Powery showed extraordinary eloquence and good, common sense.
While Duke was taking Robert E. Lee’s statue away, a dialogue was ongoing in Chapel Hill about “Silent Sam,” the statue of a Confederate soldier which stands on the main campus of UNC-Chapel Hill not far off Franklin Street. Periodically over many years now, a dialogue begins now and then over removing that statue, which some defend as historic and a monument to 321 alums of the university who served in the Confederate Army. But the statue has been vandalized, and the push for its removal has gained momentum. It is something that Chancellor Carol Folt and trustees are now going to have to consider seriously.