Why Is the University of Wyoming President So Upset About a Sculpture?

The state of the universe.
Oct. 31 2012 2:39 PM

The Artwork That Infuriated Big Coal

Academic and artistic freedom, Wyoming-style.

(Continued from Page 1)

Public universities have restricted or removed art deemed obscene or offensive, and a string of legal cases has pondered the exact meaning of those adjectives. But both Carbon Sink and the Klan panel seem well clear of this territory, and while their stories are unpleasant and inconvenient, they’re built with facts.

Still, the chancellor of Indiana University, Sharon Brehm, could have agreed to cover up the mural, or move it. Instead, in the spring of 2002, she gave a thoughtful and quite moving speech on the issue. After acknowledging the history of racial violence in Indiana, ongoing racism in the state, and the lack of racial diversity on campus, she said:

What follows, then, is my own deeply felt position, respectfully developed after careful listening and much reflection.

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I am convinced that moving or covering the mural would be morally wrong, because it would, in effect, do what Benton refused to do: that is, it would hide the shameful aspects of Indiana’s past. I might note that trying to move the mural would probably damage it, perhaps destroy it, but the major issue here is a moral one, not one of cost or even of preservation.

I am also convinced that the major issue running throughout all of the discussions and conversations over these last several weeks is not, in fact, the Benton mural, but is instead the status of diversity on our campus. The real issue, the real test of character, for Indiana University Bloomington is the strength of its commitment to diversity.

The chancellor then proposed an education program around the murals that would provide historical context to all students encountering them. She also proposed several significant diversity initiatives, including a fundraising campaign for more multicultural art on campus: “Let’s put IUB on the artistic map as a center for vigorous, exciting and (yes) controversial art by the multicultural artists of today,” she said. Brehm resigned a few months later to take another position on campus, but multicultural programs have expanded, and active and public examination of the Benton murals has continued.

These cases aren’t identical, of course. An angry university funder is harder to defy than an angry student group, especially if the funder is the coal industry and the university is in Wyoming. But the University of Wyoming, like most public universities, has a mission statement that calls for academic freedom and free expression. University donors are supposed to further that mission, not try to restrict it, and university leaders are supposed to defend it.

What if President Buchanan had given a speech like Chancellor Brehm’s? He could have acknowledged the reaction to Carbon Sink (taking care to first learn its name), and acknowledged the economic and political power of the coal industry in Wyoming. He could have acknowledged the science—some conducted at his own university—that demonstrates the connections between coal power and climate change, and climate change and forest decline. And he could have said that while coal is useful and important, it’s equally important to not only acknowledge its costs but also work to reduce them. He could have pointed to existing university programs aimed at doing just that, and called on the legislature—and the industry—to fund more.

It wouldn’t have ended the controversy. But it might have opened the conversation.

This story originally appeared in The Last Word on Nothing.

Michelle Nijhuis is a contributing writer for Smithsonian, a contributing editor of High Country News, and a 2011 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow.

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