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University of Oregon shrugs after ‘racial heritage’ mural vandalized

Boast about vandalism may get official recognition: ‘an artifact of protest’

University of North Carolina administrators did nothing to stop a supposed “rally” from tearing down an historical statue on campus, but at least they belatedly denounced the vandalism. Now “Silent Sam” will be reinstalled to comply with state law.

University of Oregon officials can’t even muster the will to denounce the recent vandalism of its own historical installation.

It’s had more than nine months to plan for the inevitable vandalism of an 81-year-old library mural titled “The Mission of a University.” More than a dozen students spearheaded a campaign to get the “racist” mural removed last year, using the hashtag #TearItDown on their Change.org petition.

Yet the university seems relieved that all that happened to the mural was an apparent smear of red paint over the two words on the mural that caused such offense.

The Daily Emerald reports that library staff believe the mural was vandalized between Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning.

The vandal(s) crossed out the words “racial heritage” in a section of mural text, written by former sociology dean and Oregon history scholar Frederick Young, that said a university’s mission includes “conservation and betterment not merely of our national resources but also of our racial heritage and of opportunity to the lowliest.” (One of the student petitioners misquoted this word as “lowliness,” telling the Daily it was “discriminatory and even degrading toward minority groups.”)

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Young’s meaning of “racial heritage” is unclear. Race can refer to “each of the major divisions of living creatures,” such as the human race, according to the Oxford Living Dictionaries.

Oregon’s original constitution banned incoming black people from “legal residence,” according to the Oregon Historical Society, though it was not retroactive.

The state had a “fully functional” black community by World War II, however, two years after the mural was installed. (It was centered in Portland, two hours north of the university in Eugene.)

According to the UO Libraries website, “The original source and purpose of Young’s text has yet to be discovered. He was dead six years before the new library was planned.”

Dean of Libraries Adriene Lim told the Daily that the smear may not have caused “lasting damage” to the mural. An index card was posted next to the vandalized mural that reads “which art do you choose to conserve now?” with a description of its materials as “found art, found courage.”

The vandal(s) suggested that the university “replace this placard [index card] with a more permanent one.”

That alludes to a university task force that was formed almost a year before the Change.org petition, with a mission of “contextualizing” library art and letting students “respond” to it. The task force decided in May to leave up “The Mission of a University” while displaying a student-sourced art exhibit this fall. (The university could get in legal trouble if it removes the mural, which it may not technically own. It was created through the New Deal-era Works Project Administration.)

Libraries dean Lim whitewashed the vandalism as an “act of protest,” telling the Daily that “I understand that people may not think [the university’s contextualizing effort is] fast enough or enough.”

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In a longer statement on the libraries website, Lim defended the inclusion of art that “may be offensive to some.” She called the “Mission” mural an historical “artifact” that is an original feature of the Knight Library, “a registered National Historic Place.”

Lim warned students that art they support can also be censored, citing her experience as a university librarian 20 years ago when someone vandalized a “Lesbian Pulp Fiction” exhibit:

My point for sharing this story is to illustrate why I am convinced that condoning acts of vandalism like this or censoring or removing works with which we are offended will ultimately and more deeply affect those of us in the minority. This experience and many other incidents I can relate, including demands from individuals to remove what they deem to be offensive books and materials from the library, inform my own reactions to this incident of vandalism now. …

Defacing, shrouding, or removing these types of artifacts undermines the potential for us to engage critically about and oppose the supremacist ideologies that were implicit in their creation. It will obscure the evidence of racism and sexism in the history of the university that many of us want to confront head-on.

The index card posted next to the mural has been moved to the University Archives “for consideration as an artifact of protest at the university,” Lim wrote. In other words, the university will reward vandalism.

It’s not clear if the campus police will investigate. Lim told the Daily that UOPD owns the security cameras at the entrances to the library.

Read the Daily report and Lim’s statement.

MORE: Students panic after being charged for shutting down UO prez speech

IMAGE: studiostoks/Shutterstock

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg Piper served as associate editor of The College Fix from 2014 to 2021.