Letter from the Editor

Dear Dr. Berner

Note: We’ve received multiple requests that Dr. Berner’s email be linked within this article. As it was not a public post made on any website, but rather an email to Sewanee students and faculty, we’ve included the full text in the comments below.

Dear Dr. Berner, 

We write regarding your recent email encouraging students to refrain from “individual action” against racist artifacts and symbols at Sewanee. The University’s unwillingness to celebrate a material protest against an artifact of the Lost Cause is discouraging, especially after the Board of Regents’ decision to finally disavow the Confederacy and the Lost Cause last September. 

The individual who removed the sculpture sent two letters explaining their decision and treated the bust with respect, despite Leonidas Polk deserving little in life, and even less in death. It’s not that Polk, and many other people who are enshrined as icons across campus, “might be considered problematic.” Unquestionably, “Sewanee’s Fighting Bishop” was a vile, murderous, treasonous slaver who tried to overthrow the United States government by force of arms. Even by the standards of 19th century ethics, Polk’s legacy is indefensible. Any critic of the anonymous student concerned with “presentism” would do well to remember that roughly half of the United States was against slavery when Polk died. His greatest service to Sewanee (and humankind) was his generous decision to step in front of a cannonball at Pine Mountain. Are we really expected to wait until June of 2022 for a committee of academics to confirm what a five minute Google search would reveal about Polk, or any other bigot commemorated on this campus? 

Many of the greatest revolutionaries, peace makers, and activists throughout history began their work as individuals precisely because larger groups and systems were not doing enough. An anonymous student at Sewanee thought critically about the harm that this institution caused their peers, then acted on their conscience. The act of taking Polk’s bust was a profound statement of individual morality over institutional bureaucracy. It took the University over a century to confirm what the Union Army decided in 1865; it’s no wonder students have lost trust in University committees. 

We should encourage students to seek justice within harmful institutions. It’s defeatist to assert that real change cannot be introduced by the actions of a single person, and that’s the message that comes across in your email. Reckoning with the past begins with discomfort in the present, and that was demonstrated by the necessary and ethical removal of Polk’s bust from duPont. 


The Sewanee Spectre

6 replies on “Dear Dr. Berner”

Could you post a link to the text of the Provost’s reply, or at least the relevant portion? Many of us are unaware of what Dr. Berner had to say.

Hi, Thomas,

Dr. Berner’s email wasn’t posted on a public website, but here is the text of the email for your information.


Dear Campus Community,

Some of you may have noticed that a sculpture of the head of Leonidas Polk has been removed from its former stand in duPont Library. The University did not remove the piece; it was the act of an individual as outlined in the article in the Sewanee Purple. The sculpture, which was left at University Archives, will be housed in the Archives. Professor Woody Register, director of the Roberson Project, and Mandi Johnson, director of Archives, have conducted some research over the past several days into the history of this piece and its sculptor. More information about that will be available soon.

I can understand the sentiment behind a desire to remove the Polk sculpture from a public place, especially one frequented by the entire community. As Vice-Chancellor Brigety said in his email last Friday, however, “The task to transform our university’s culture regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion is both urgent and necessary. At times it will be difficult, and it will not happen overnight.” There are many items and place names on our campus that might be considered problematic, and the Roberson Project has been cataloging them as part of its research. Rather than take individual action, please let them continue their excellent work so that we can make the necessary changes in a thoughtful and systematic way.

Remember that institutional change happens when individuals come together with an agreement of what they want to achieve, and the power is in that collective action. As a university community, we want to move toward a united commitment and collective action expressing our values of EQB. As reported previously by the vice-chancellor, a committee will begin work in June to evaluate the names and stories behind buildings, monuments, and places on the Domain to identify naming principles and practices and ensure that, in every instance, there is an appropriate balance between the contributions of the namesakes and the values of our University. Recommendations will be presented to the Board of Regents in June 2022.

Changes already have been made in several places on campus, in each case after a review of the history and in consultation with others as appropriate. For example, the Kirby Smith bas-relief was relocated in 2017 from University Avenue to the Kirby Smith plot in the University Cemetery; the seal of the Confederacy was removed from a window pane in All Saints’ Chapel in 2018; and it was announced last year that as part of its renovation, Thompson Union will be renamed the Biehl Commons. Most recently, Chaplain Peter Gray announced upcoming changes to a stained glass window (known as the “Reconciliation” panel) that currently contains within it the Confederate battle flag.

Nancy Berner

While I respect and support the actions of the individual, I don’t think we can expect the institution to move at a breakneck pace. Forward progress is happening, even though it is slower than many of us would like. It is the responsibility of the institution to move forward, but with appropriate caution and clarity.

I think we should applaud the University’s decision to not replace the statue and to not identify the individual responsible; however, I agree it is our job as progressives to push the institution to move faster, more decisively, and with purpose. While doing so, we should respect that the institution has to consider the liabilities of its actions.

On the other hand, I also think there’s an argument to be made that if the institution can’t survive without racist dollar and racist donors, maybe it doesn’t deserve to survive. If some family is going to sue us for renaming a building, so be it.

TLDR: “We the young bolsheviks of Sewanee fully support the decision of an anonymous student to blatantly violate the law / university rules / honor code because their cause was obviously just and you boomers move too slow, duh.” The rank petulance of the tone here is so immature you actually wince when you read it. Yikes. #EQB2013

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *