Posted on July 14, 2005

Lost Cause at Vanderbilt

Inside Higher Ed, July 13

The Battle of Nashville was fought in 1864, but Civil War skirmishing has been plentiful in the city for the past three years — much to the frustration of Vanderbilt University.

With strong support from its black students and alumni, Vanderbilt has been waging a legal fight to remove the word “Confederate” from the front of a dormitory. But the move has outraged groups that seek to honor and study Confederate history. On Monday, Vanderbilt announced that it was giving up its battle — although the university will continue to refer to the building without the “Confederate” name in all publications, maps and public statements.

“We have achieved what we wanted to achieve,” said Michael J. Schoenfeld, vice chancellor for public affairs at the university. He stressed that the only place that the name of the building wouldn’t change was in the inscription on it. “We don’t think carrying this forward is in Vanderbilt’s interest.”

In May, a Tennessee appeals court ruled that Vanderbilt could not drop “Confederate” from the building’s facade — unless it returned a donation it received in 1933 at the value of the donation in today’s dollars.That decision reversed a lower court’s decision that allowed Vanderbilt to drop “Confederate” from the name.

The dispute dates to a move by Vanderbilt in 2002 to drop “Confederate” from the name of “Confederate Memorial Hall.” The Tennessee chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which gave the university money for the building in 1933, went to court to challenge the decision.

The legal debate has focused on the obligations of nonprofit groups not to change gift conditions years (or decades) after a donation has been received. But the public debate has broadened to questions about race relations and history.