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Common Ground: It Began as a Protest over a Statue and Ended as a Monument to Diversity—and to the Determination of Two Exceptional Students. Story by Eric McHenry.

Letters to the Editor about "Common Ground"

These letters have been received by Sept. 20th. To add your voice to the dialogue, please send e-mail to columns@u.washington.edu and identify it as a letter about “Common Ground.”

Empty Pedestal Fitting

“He looks like a plantation owner.” “He’s elevated. We’re being told to admire him.” That’s all Jaebadiah Gardner, ’05, knows about James J. Hill [“Common Ground,” Sept 2005]. He “glowers” at the statue across from More Hall on the UW campus, but he doesn’t see it from an educated perspective. He has no understanding of why it’s there or what it represents. If “the primary mission of the University of Washington is the preservation, advancement and dissemination of knowledge” then, when a sophomore says something sophomoric, the mission of the University should be to challenge that student to pursue a greater understanding. In this case, the mission of the University should be to intellectually challenge a bright young man like Gardner and encourage him to actually study and learn something about James J. Hill and American history. Hill only had nine years of formal schooling and began work as a clerk at age 17. He was a man of tremendous accomplishment. He built railroads instead of empty pedestals. One can make a credible argument that it was industrialists like Hill who created the manufacturing economy and made it possible to put an end to slavery on the plantations. This same manufacturing economy in later years was to provide a new life for the sharecroppers who moved north to find opportunity.

Shouldn’t the privilege of a university education be coupled with a responsibility to seek a deeper level of understanding that surpasses silly stereotypes? Instead of being encouraged to increase the weight of the chip he carries on his shoulder, Gardner should have been challenged to explore how a Northern capitalist differed from a Southern plantation owner. He should have been challenged to explore the idea that the cultural legacy of European history and of Western civilization belongs to people of all ethnicities, just as the legacies of all the diverse cultures of the world belong to all of humankind. Gardner should have been encouraged to embark on diverse intellectual travels that would expand his perception beyond one narrow ideology.

Gardner was cheated by the University of Washington, and we are all cheated when a bright young mind is not challenged to achieve its full potential. The empty pedestal is a fitting symbol of this swindle.

Will Cummings, ’89, ’93
Kent

Another Step Out of Darkness

I, too, felt aware of being “outside” the traditional learning community of the modern university as a UW freshman in 1984. A white female from a working class family that had for so long nurtured its own fear of knowledge, I looked up at those white gods on Suzzallo’s façade and felt invisible. But, like most students of color and all women, I couldn’t stop there. I was propelled into this environment by my desire to change my world for the better. In doing so, I became visible.

Isn’t it funny? What J.B. [Gardner] and Sumona [Das Gupta] have been able to accomplish at the University of Washington is ... the active perusal of a liberal education. These motivated students, by imagining a statement, garnering ample institutional support, and seeing their vision through until its completion, have enjoyed more power than the real world can promise them. It’ll be so much more challenging “out there,” as any public artist will tell you. The kind of hard, uncomfortable and emotional interactions experienced by the students in John Young’s class—mitigated by caring teachers and facilitators—are only a microcosm of the committees all artists must deal with in seeing any project through to completion. And in the real world, there are no guarantees.

If these young adults have learned one single lesson of worth through this process, I hope it is that real change feels uncomfortable, is hard, and must result in tension and frustration. Yet, the act of struggling toward an egalitarian society does not itself guarantee its achievement. I hope these students haven’t learned at their college that a good life is an easy, unchallenged one.

I learned, from those guys on the walls of Suzzallo and from my professors and classes, that the only given in life is that at any point in our shared human history. Art is there to remind us of the best part of ourselves: our creative drive to be visible no matter the cost. That is the most valuable legacy of these students’ artwork. Like Shakespeare and Plato, or Galileo and Van Gogh, or Maya Lin and Pablo Neruda, “Blocked Out” canonizes yet another step out of darkness and into the light.

Kate Wallace Johnson, ’88
Wenatchee Valley College
Omak

Indebted to the Students

In your article, “Common Ground,” you captured beautifully the incredible work of the students, and particularly the student leaders, Sumona Das Gupta and Jaebadiah Gardner.

Yet another exceptional feature of this project was the group of faculty, administrators, community members and advisers who pulled together to support the students in their endeavor. “Rusty” Barcelo, vice president and vice provost for diversity, gave direction and encouragement to the students from the very beginning, and provided intellectual guidance to us all. Gail Dubrow, now dean of the Graduate School at the University of Minnesota, negotiated the complex thicket of art, architecture and administration, and mediated the process throughout. The advisory group whom Art Professor John Young pulled together included community members who gave freely of their time and expertise, as well as UW professors who lent depth of understanding at every point along the way. We are all especially indebted to Ethnic Studies Professor “Rick” Bonus.

These additions to the cast who contributed to this project by no means brings the list to a close. The project gave us a chance to use our administrative positions to advance fundamental values; provided an unequalled opportunity to teach and learn; and offered a risky creative and artistic challenge. In short, it brought out the best in a long list of people, and for this we are indebted to the students.

Debra Friedman
Dean, College of Public Programs
Arizona State University

Selecting for Excellence

If nothing else, your article on the concrete block with footprints now adorning the UW campus certainly demonstrated the quality of art produced by a committee. ... While our so very earnest students are learning to design and place a concrete block, the extremely selective schools of science and technology in China and India are turning out hundreds of thousands of graduates, who probably never considered whether their campus was “welcoming” or not. Those institutions are selecting for excellence, not diversity. Tick, tick, tick, tick ...

Anthony Williams, ’68
Flagstaff, Ariz.

Politically Correct Gobbledygook

So, as I understand it, the point of your September cover story, “Common Ground,” is that the UW campus statues of “Empire Builder” James J. Hill and former Husky football coach Jim Owens should be denigrated because they are, or were, insensitive white males. Instead, they are to be countered by “Blocked Out,” an angry diversity monument “dedicated to those who are excluded from the house they were exploited to create.” In Owens’ case, he was pressured to apologize for unspecified transgressions against “students of color” many years ago. Frankly, when I was sports editor of the Daily, I didn’t think Owens was a very good coach (certainly not in Don James’ league) but I didn’t realize that he wasn’t just losing football games; he was also committing crimes against humanity. Horrors! If I had only known.

Apparently, this monument flap illustrates how the UW administration is urging minority students—those who are “underrepresented and unheard”—to express their “sincerity and determination.” … This sounds like the usual politically correct gobbledygook heard on college campuses throughout the U.S. these days. Or perhaps this is the way the University administration is bringing people together and creating a sense of community at my alma mater. You tell me because I’m a bit confused about the real motives of student activists like J.B. and Sumona.

Guy W. Farmer, ’57
Carson City, Nev.

Unfair Racial Stereotypes

I was disappointed by your September 2005 Columns cover story, “Common Ground”. The article praises student Jaebadiah Gardener for helping foster a UW campus that’s more friendly to diverse cultures, yet in the second paragraph Gardener shows that he embraces the same unfair racial stereotypes as the people he deplores.

Gardener says the campus statue of James J. Hill “looks like a plantation owner.” But as your article notes, Hill was in fact a railroad tycoon that played a key role in the economic development of the Pacific Northwest. Deploring the statue of Hill simply because he happens to “look like” the stereotype of a racist plantation owner displays no less of a racist attitude than a white employer refusing to hire a black employee because his hair “looks unprofessional.”

Both employ equally racist visual heuristics instead of actually getting the facts straight. Shame on Gardener for his factual ignorance, and shame on Columns for praising him as an “exceptional student” and uncritically printing his views.

Andrew Chamberlain, ’01
Washington, D.C.

To add your voice to the dialogue, please send e-mail to columns@u.washington.edu and identify it as a letter about “Common Ground.”

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Letters to the Editor: Readers comment on "Common Ground"