Texas A&M is planning to keep the statue of Confederate general and former university president Lawrence Sullivan Ross at the center of its flagship campus, according to university officials.
Monday, the Texas A&M Board of Regents approved a nearly $25 million action plan to address diversity, with $1 million designated to a task force that will work to more fully portray A&M’s history through displays and iconography. A&M Interim President John L. Junkins said in a Wednesday interview that while the task force is expected to address issues related to the Sul Ross statue, the understanding is that monuments will be added to the campus.
“The Board [of Regents] specifically approved a task force to study the problem, but generally, I think the expectation is there will be additional statues, in addition to Sul Ross,” he said.
The Board of Regents on Monday released an explanation of the eight-point action plan they approved. In describing the “action-oriented” task force, the statement said that spaces will be designed to “recognize historical figures in addition to that of Lawrence Sullivan Ross, perhaps reimagining Academic Plaza and/or other additional spaces for future recognition.”
The expectation is to concentrate on the history of the university and the key contributors to the history of the university, Junkins said Wednesday.
“Their bio will also be included, and in the case of Sul Ross it would obviously cover his role as a Confederate soldier, and so on,” he explained. “So I think the documentation of our history, and essentially the key contributors over time to get to our current state and that's the — Ross belongs. But we're gonna try to change the conversation to get away from deification of leaders in terms of all attributes of their lives and recognize mainly the contribution to building the university, but also document their history and making a historical record of leadership. That’s what I expect.”
Junkins’ Monday statement that is posted on the A&M president website outlines the leaders of each of the Regent-approved actions. It states that Jorge Vanegas, dean and professor of architecture, and university architect Lilia Gonzales are leading the charge for campus historical displays for the task force.
The $25 million diversity plan, which Junkins presented to the Regents on Monday, is a response to a report released by the 45-member Commission on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, made up of current and former students, faculty and staff. The commission came in light of several summer protests for and against removing the Sul Ross statue.
When former-president Michael K. Young announced his intent in June to create a commission, he specifically asked for a recommendation on the Sul Ross statue. In July, he announced the official charge of the Commission on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, leaving Ross out of the announcement and calling for findings as opposed to recommendations.
In July, state Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion that said the Texas Legislature likely has the final say on the future of the Sul Ross statue. The opinion said the Sul Ross statue is located on state property and honors Ross in part for his military service, a court “is likely to conclude” that A&M must comply with a section of the Government Code that outlines the Legislature as the entity authorized to remove or relocate monuments or memorials.
The opinion is nonbinding legal guidance and cannot resolve actual disputes, as reported in the Texas Tribune at the time.
Texas A&M System Chancellor John Sharp said at the time that “the statue of Lawrence Sullivan Ross cannot be moved by anyone at Texas A&M University, including the Board of Regents.” He went on in his statement to say, “Nevertheless, the President’s Commission has important work to do to make Texas A&M University even greater. We all should put our energy toward that goal.”
The upcoming task force that was approved Monday will deliver its recommendations to the A&M president by summer 2021 so the president can present them to the Chancellor and the Regents at the August 2021 meeting, according to the Monday Board of Regents statement.
Junkins spoke to the Black Former Students Network via Zoom on Wednesday about the Commission on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion report. When talking about the upcoming task force to address A&M’s history through displays, he stressed that he wants more than just research to be completed.
“I want conceptual designs for whatever is going to be done in terms of historical recognition and statues and the possible redesign, the likely redesign, of the Academic Plaza,” he said. “All of those things — I want those in my hands. … I want some answers. I want plans. It’s enough already. … The money is there. We have a door open. This is an important space and time that we have to seize. We can’t just talk it to death anymore. We want actions.”
The Commission on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion report said that the Sul Ross statue is a “source of deep emotions and strongly polarized views,” with people's opinions divided mainly along racial and age demographic lines.
“The commission’s study of 19 other universities found that not addressing the attention or controversy surrounding symbols, names and iconography will likely result in additional reputational damage, and continue strife indefinitely,” the report states. “While it is beneficial for leadership to fully address this two-sided issue, it is important to understand that legislative approval may be required to alter, move or remove the monument.”
Since the report was first released on Monday, Commission on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion co-chair Jimmy Williams said students and some faculty have said they are appreciative that complex issues were broken down in the report, that the document didn’t back away from difficult topics and that it also talked about positive things happening at A&M. He added that the diversity plan as a whole that the Board of Regents approved is a “very good start” but that there are other issues that still need to be addressed down the road.