Ed Hooper, Civil War Courier
SEWANEE, Tenn. – The University of the South will celebrate its 150th anniversary from 2007-2008.
If the current fight between traditionalists and administration officials over the university’s attempt to remake its image and allegedly distance itself from its storied Southern past is any indication, the party punch may turn sour.
Alumni and supporters are charging the school is trying to deconstruct its history to create a politically correct environment – a charge university officials deny.
The University of the South at Sewanee is a small liberal arts university nestled on 10,000 acres in Tennessee’s Cumberland Mountains that has garnered a first-class reputation through the years as one of the best liberal arts schools in the nation.
In fact, the school has produced more than 20 Rhodes scholars, has a Pulitzer Prize winning literary tradition unrivaled anywhere in the nation and is a landmark in the region’s history.
More than 75 percent of its student body is from the South and, from its founding in 1857, the institution’s roots are planted firmly in Confederate history. (See Founded on Faith Pg. 22) Confederate Generals Edmund Kirby Smith and Francis Asbury Shoup, as well as Confederate Naval officer Jack Eggleston, who served aboard the CSS Virginia until her destruction in the “Battle of the Ironclads,” all lie buried in the University Cemetery along with 20 other noted Confederates. Monuments to them and other famous figures in the university’s past dot the campus, including one to its founder, who later became a Confederate general, Bishop Leonidas Polk.
The controversy was blown wide open last year when the Chicago consulting firm Lipman – Hearne issued a marketing report commissioned by the school stating among other things: “The South, to which Sewanee is intimately linked because of history, location, and name, can prompt negative associations for prospective students… And because Sewanee’s full name so firmly links it with the region, it must bear the brunt of this perception, which 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. In some instances, Sewanee’s own presentation-such as the Rebel’s Rest sign a visitor encounters upon arrival on campus, or the stained glass windows representing the role of Sewanee students in the Civil War-further exacerbates this negative image.”
To make matters worse, numerous incidents involving such displays as an elaborate oil portrait of Leonidas Polk that went missing after alleged damage from vandals, a jewel-encrusted ceremonial mace with Confederate symbols used since 1965 “accidentally breaking,” the removal of the South’s state flags from the Chapel and the university rearranging its name on campus signs from “The University of the South” to “Sewanee: The University of the South” have added fuel to the already growing fire. (See University of the South: Timeline) With this being the bicentennial year of founding Episcopal Bishop Leonidas Polk’s birth, a renewed interest in the university and the “Fighting Bishop of the Confederacy” is pushing the story beyond the borders of alumni and supporters in the southeastern region.
Recent news articles published in the New York Times and the Atlanta Journal Constitution regarding the missing ceremonial mace and the university’s reported move to distance themselves from the institution’s affiliations with the antebellum South has angered alumni over what they see as a school more interested in public perception and image rather than the high standards that have been it’s benchmark over the years.
“I am outraged over the university’s recent administration’s attempt to rewrite our history,” said alumnus Robert Higgins. “The University of the South was not supposed to be part of the Ivy League schools of the Northeast; it was founded to compete with them and provide the same university education for Southerners, which history shows it has done for generations. If the new administration doesn’t like what the University of the South stands for or are ashamed of our heritage, so be it. I understand and even respect their opinion, but they need to be honest about it and not silently devious in their actions to destroy the foundations upon which the school was built.”
University of the South officials have repeatedly said the school has no plans to erase Confederate and Southern symbols from the University. Vice Chancellor Joel Cunningham, in an open letter to the school community published in the alumni magazine (Sewanee magazine) in 2004, publicly stated that the logo’s shift of emphasis on the university’s name had nothing to do with downplaying its Southern connections.
It isn’t only students and alumni angered over the shift from tradition.
Tennessee heritage groups say they have ran into issues with the University of the South. While the United Daughters of the Confederacy does maintain the General Edmund Kirby-Smith Chapter that meets near the university and donated the Kirby-Smith monument, which sits on the campus lawn, the biggest issue heritage groups have faced recently is over historical markers.
Middle Tennessee Commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and author of Tullahoma: The 1863 Campaign for the Control of Middle Tennessee, Michael Bradley, said they had problems putting up signs to mark a Civil War heritage trail in the region because of the University.
“It’s such a closed community and we don’t have much say there,” said Bradley. “We ran into a situation where the interpretative signs marking the Tullahoma Campaign Trail were not permitted because they don’t fit their signage guidelines. We did, however, go back and reconstruct the official state historical markers commemorating the Tullahoma campaign.”
While Bradley has no ties to The University of the South, he does feel the Lipman-Hearne report showed no one from the firm had reportedly visited the campus when it stated: “…the stained glass windows representing the role of Sewanee students in the Civil War—further exacerbates this negative image.”
Bradley points out that the only images of Civil War soldiers on the All Saints Chapel’s stained glass windows are of Union soldiers blowing up the University’s antebellum cornerstone.
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