COLLEGE STATION, TX — A diversity committee at Texas A&M University said school officials must resolve the decadeslong debate over moving or removing the statue of Lawrence Sullivan Ross, a former Texas governor and Confederate general, or else the university risks long-term damage to its reputation.
A report released Monday evening found that 75% of the 450 students, faculty and alumni who provided feedback to the committee want the statue moved or removed. But the committee, which was formed as a response to summer protests calling for racial justice and demands by students, did not make its own recommendation, insisting its role was for fact finding.
“While some universities have attempted to ignore demands surrounding symbols, names and iconography, in the majority of cases, they have been unsuccessful and by inadequately addressing the issue, increased reputational damage,” the report read.
Three university fundraising foundations were interviewed by the committee, including the Texas A&M Foundation and 12th Man Foundation. Those donor groups also said they did not believe making changes to the statue would have a long-term negative impact on fundraising efforts, though they expected it could lead to a short-term drop.
“All groups agreed that much of the dissent is from a small number of people who are spreading rumors and tend to be overly vocal about their opinions,” the report stated. “In terms of actions, all three groups indicated that better defining values, putting them into practice and marketing them would be positive for both Texas A&M and fundraising efforts.”
Despite these findings, the board of regents took no action on the statue again Monday. Instead, the board created yet another task force to decide how to tell Texas A&M’s history on campus through symbols and iconography, and “designing spaces to recognize historical figures in addition to that of Lawrence Sullivan Ross.”
The debate over the statue was reignited last summer, despite previous statements from the Texas A&M system chancellor that the statue would remain. Attorney General Ken Paxton opined that only the Legislature could remove the statue. A Student Government Association survey from last summer shows opinions among students at the time were mixed, with a majority of students preferring the statue stay as it is. Students of color were more likely to support moving or removing the state.
The new “action oriented” task force will present their recommendations to the president and board this summer. The university also approved a four-year, $25 million initiative to boost diversity among students and faculty. Just 3% of students at Texas A&M are Black.
Texas A&M’s report was released the same day The Texas Tribune reported that major universities across Texas have dodged demands to remove statues with racist origins over the past eight months, despite movement on this issue at universities across the country in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police.
Instead, many Texas universities decided to address diversity and inclusion issues by investing in diversity training, scholarships and professional development to boost diversity.
“I decided early on that I couldn't do everything, all the issues raised in this report,” interim President John Junkins told regents during a special meeting held virtually Monday night. “I look for the tall poles in the tent, the things that require investment and would make the most difference to get started this spring.”
When former President Michael Young announced his intention to organize a committee in June of last year, he said the group would start with issuing a recommendation on the future of the Ross statue.
As part of its work, the commission reviewed similar situations at 19 universities across the country as case studies, noting that they "found that not addressing the attention or controversy surrounding symbols, names and iconography will likely result in additional reputational damage and continue strife indefinitely."
Yet Jimmy Williams, one of the report’s co-chairs, said the issues at Texas A&M go beyond the future of one statue.
“If we make the statue the single discussion around diversity, equity and inclusion you miss solving the challenges of the ecosystem,” Williams said. “I would like to think that what we have done and recommended, and if it gets executed on, will have implications for students, faculty, staff, former students...for the next 15 [to] 40 years.”
Williams said he understands the university has lost people’s trust because they have talked about these issues for too long without a resolution. But he said he’s confident the report’s findings would lead to action, pointing to the fact that the newly approved task force is specifically called “action oriented.” Chancellor John Sharp referred questions to President Junkins, who did not respond to requests for comment.
Students like Qynetta Caston, a senior who has been a vocal opponent of the Ross statue, were skeptical. For her, another task force just further proves to her that university leaders are prioritizing donors while also “saving face” with the financial investment.
“Putting $25 million into different areas is progress, but it's not change. And what we're asking for is change,” Caston said. “Mississippi changed their whole state flag...But Texas A&M couldn’t even attempt a compromise with the Black community by removing the Confederate statue from the middle of its campus. That’s very disappointing.”
The report noted that current students believed the university cared more about wealthy, white donors than their desires. Yet it also said that while donors currently skew white and male, that is likely because those donors attended Texas A&M before or just after the university began admitting women and people of color. It said those demographics are starting to shift as more diverse graduates leave the university.
Caston, who graduates this spring, said she’ll continue to push Texas A&M to move the statue even after she‘s no longer a student. But the latest delay doesn’t give her hope that things will change.
“We knew what A&M’s position was when they put a fence around the statue," she said, referring to the barrier put in place in June during the height of the summer protests,"when they decided to protect an inanimate object rather than their students of color."
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/01/26/texas-am-sull-ross-statue/.
The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.