The University of the S**th
by Gail Jarvis
by Gail Jarvis
Political correctness has gained such a strong hold on the minds of college administrators that many rush head-over-heels into unwise decisions, often acting as though possessed by mass hysteria. Let me present an example to illustrate how utterly bizarre their behavior has become.
The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, is a unique little liberal arts college, founded in 1858 by the Episcopal dioceses of ten Southern states. In 1941, alumnus and poet William Alexander Percy, uncle of novelist Walker Percy, wrote this about the University in his autobiography, Lanterns on the Levee: "It's a long way away, even from Chattanooga, in the middle of woods, on top of a bastion of mountains crenelated with blue coves. It is so beautiful that people who have been there always, one way or another, come back. For such as can detect apple green in an evening sky, it is Arcadia — not the one that never used to be, but the one that many people always live in; only this one can be shared."
The University of the South was the brainchild of Leonidas Polk, Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana and a General in the Confederate army. Bishop Polk was the cousin of President James K. Polk. He conceived the idea for a school that would offer education and religious training for sons of Southern gentry throughout the South. Leonidas Polk became the school's Chancellor and the position of Vice-Chancellor was offered to, but refused by, another prominent Episcopalian, Robert E. Lee.
As members of a local Episcopal church, my wife and I along with other couples visited the University of the South in the early 1960s. My memories of our visit confirm William Alexander Percy's description. We toured the campus and celebrated Eucharist in the college's All Saints' Chapel. One of the monks took us on a tour on the monastery and showed us what a typical monk's cell looks like. Of course, we adhered to the rule of silence in the halls. We were impressed by the deportment of the students; at the time it was an all male school. The students were always neatly groomed and coats and ties were required for class attendance. The school had quietly integrated a few years before our visit and became coed a few years later.
The nave of All Saints' Chapel once contained the flags of the American Southern states but those were removed in the name of political correctness. Craven administrators also deleted any mention of the University's founder from its catalog because of his Confederate connection.
Bishop Polk modeled the school's banner on the Episcopal Church's flag. This flag bears the Cross of St. George that Richard the Lionhearted flew during the English Crusades. It is also the majestic centerpiece of the British flag. Polk inserted eleven stars into the Cross of St. George to represent the Confederate states of America.
As we might have expected, some maintain that the University of the South's flag bears too close a resemblance to the Confederate flag. And, as we have learned over the years, even a remote resemblance to a blacklisted symbol is suspect. One of this generation's injustice collectors might make an issue out of the similarity between the two flags. So we can assume that those who want to sanitize the school's history will also push to have the design of the flag changed.
Recently, Sewanee retained a Chicago marketing firm for advice regarding recruitment of students. The firm recommended that: "the school should downplay its Southern' identity because it has negative connotations for some prospective students." Of course, arguments for eliminating Southern heritage are nothing new. But now the argument has been taken a step further. The marketing study warned against the word "South" in the University's name stating: "Our research has revealed the ‘South' can often raise negative associations" and "has a particular resonance with prospects of minority, ethnic and racial backgrounds, as well as with others who have not experienced life in the South."
So now, the very word South is politically incorrect. To me, this is not only absurd but also a little scary. A perfect example of how Kafkaesque the PC affliction has become.
Of course, Sewanee's administrators immediately kowtowed to the Chicago consultants. To downplay the word South, the name of the school has now been changed to "Sewanee: The University of the South." The University's President has denied rumors that the word South will eventually be eliminated altogether and the college will be renamed "Sewanee University" or "Cumberland Plateau College." However, he has been careful to note that the "University of the South" is "just a mouthful to say" which seems to leave the door open for future changes.
One alumnus has endorsed the name change and aggressively encouraged further changes stating that he had "identified specific parts of the university as being problematic. I knew all it would take would be a little encouragement or moral fortitude to continue the removal of things that are part of the university's history." He also stated "that the environment for such moves is favorable" citing Vanderbilt's "courageous" decision to change the name of its Confederate Memorial Hall.
However, the name change has not received overwhelming support from the Sewanee faculty. An English professor referred to the Chicago consultants as "a bunch of clueless outsiders" and emphasized that the change "gives too much ground to unfair stereotypes of the South and its residents." He made this point: "That seems to me to be a kind of mindless reductionism. If we're doing this to attract a diverse group of students and we pander to every conceivable prejudice, then pretty soon nobody will come here because they'll say, ‘Well, this is lukewarm. They have no character.' The English do not go around taking down pictures of bad kings. And they‘ve had their share, God knows."
Students interviewed on campus didn't seem to think the school's name is a problem either. Many were drawn by the school's small size, splendid academics, friendly atmosphere, beautiful campus and "strong sense of tradition." An African-American freshman said of the name: "I didn't even ask about that. That didn't make a difference to me."
Interestingly, the Chicago firm's claim that South conveys a negative connotation, conflicts with statistics on U.S. population shifts. Current figures show that people have migrated to the South at a rate more than double that for each of the other three regions of the country. In the 1990s, the South's black population increased by three and a half million. This increase in black migration to the South was more than the other three regions combined, and represents 58% of the total increase in the country's black population. In the South Carolina county where I live, half or more of the population relocated or retired here from other regions of the country.
But the school's administrators will only listen to one side of the story. They cringe when faced with a charge of political incorrectness, regardless of its merit. The Chicago consulting firm also recommended that Mary Maples Dunn, President of Smith College "take a fresh look at Sewanee's curricula." Ms. Dunn was apparently astounded that: "There are, as yet, few courses here in gender studies or human sexuality; the words gay and lesbian don't appear. There is no major or minor in Women's Studies, or in African American Studies, there is relatively little non-western material." Predictably, Sewanee capitulated to Ms. Dunn's criticisms and the school now has a Women's Studies Department with course offerings such as "Introduction to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender studies."
On the light side, the college's attempt to de-emphasize the word South has produced humorous public commentary. Dan Tyree, writing in The Tullahoma News, wonders if William and Mary will be renamed William and Brad because the current name is too heterosexual. Tyree makes this point: "Sewanee is locked in an intensely competitive search for the best and brightest students. But isn't it possible that the students who swallow all the old redneck stereotypes about the South maybe aren't the best and the brightest? They probably think Poly Tech is a college for parrots."
And that is what the nervous little bureaucrats at Sewanee don't comprehend. Discerning, intelligent people are not constrained by symbols or ridiculous extraneous issues. They focus on what is essential. And the fact that the University of the South has achieved a national reputation as an exemplary liberal arts college, that attracts students from all over the globe, indicates that its name is not a hindrance. Yet, to no avail, the outstanding traditions of the University of the South, that have flourished for 147 years, are being trashed on the politically correct compost heap.
May 28, 2004
Gail Jarvis [send him mail], a CPA living in Beaufort, SC, is an advocate of the voluntary union of states established by the founders.
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