The Purge Comes for Edwin Alderman

by James A. Bacon

As President of the University of Virginia between 1904 and 1931, Edwin Anderson Alderman led Thomas Jefferson’s university into the 20th century. A self-proclaimed “progressive” of the Woodrow Wilson stamp, he advocated higher taxes to support public education, admitted the first women into UVA graduate programs, boosted enrollment and faculty hiring, established the university’s endowment, reformed governance and gave UVA its modern organizational structure. Most memorably to Wahoos of the current era, he built a state-of-the-art facility, named Alderman Library in his honor, to further the pursuit of knowledge.

Like many other “progressives” of the era, Alderman also promoted the science (now known to be a pseudo-science) of eugenics, and he held racist views that  have been roundly rejected in the 21st century.

A movement has burgeoned at UVA to remove Alderman’s name from the library. The Ryan administration was poised in December to ask for Board of Visitors approval to take that step by renaming the newly-renovated facility after former President Edgar Shannon. The administration withdrew the proposal after determining it did not have a majority vote. But Team Ryan could resurrect the name change at the February/March meeting of the Board, as suggested in the flier seen above.

The issue is bigger than the naming of a library. The issue is whether there are any limits to the purging of names and memorials of historical figures who were instrumental in the growth and development of the university. Excepting only Thomas Jefferson himself, Alderman arguably did more to shape UVA than any other president.  If Alderman’s legacy is to be consigned to the memory hole on the grounds that he was a “white supremacist,” by what legerdemain of logic would outdated views about race prevent Jefferson from being canceled as well?

The time is way overdue for the UVA community to articulate principles for remembering the past. Broadly speaking, there are two approaches.

One way adds to our collective memory. It supplements older perspectives with new ones. It highlights the contributions of past figures while reevaluating them for our own time. Such an approach brings new facts and themes to our attention, and it reinterprets rather than banishes the parts that have fallen out of favor. In an additive approach to the past, for example, researching and honoring the contributions of once-historically-invisible slaves adds to the richness of our understanding of an earlier era.

The alternative — the way called by for the Racial Equity Task Force and embraced by the Ryan administration — is purgative. Viewing the past mercilessly through the prism of the present, this approach is intolerant and retributive. Nothing is added; the whole is diminished. By deleting major figures from our collective memory, it shrinks our understanding. Thus, to take another example, tearing down the statue of Indian fighter George Rogers Clark eliminates an opportunity to think critically about encounters between an expanding United States empire and the indigenous peoples that stood in its way.

President Jim Ryan and Provost Ian Baucom insist they support viewpoint diversity and civil discourse at UVA. That claim is difficult to reconcile with their moves to purify the University from the tainted aspects of its history. Their renaming initiatives apply crude, one-dimensional yardsticks for evaluating the past. This one-flaw-and-you’re-out approach allows no room for complexity, nuance, or the ability to evaluate past figures with competing criteria of merit and unworthiness.

Perhaps the very worst thing about the de-naming of Edwin Alderman is the message that it sends the university community: there is only one truth, we know what it is, and the matter is settled for all time. That is how the quest for knowledge dies.