Update on N.B. Forrest and Middle Tennessee State University

By now most of you are aware of the recent move by a group of students at Middle Tennessee State University to remove the name of Nathan B. Forrest from one of its buildings.  Here is a letter to the editor of the Murfreesboro Post from the Vice President of Student Affairs. 

To the Editor:

Much has been written about the appropriateness of the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest on the Military Science Building on the campus of MTSU. I would like to clarify one or two points and elaborate on what the university’s position is on this issue.

The university annually receives numerous resolutions from the Student Government Association. While non-binding on the university, these resolutions are an expression of the sense of the Student Government Association and the students represented by that body. The administration values these resolutions and takes seriously its responsibility to review them. The university also reserves the right to take action, or to take no action, based upon the administration’s best understanding of state law, Tennessee Board of Regents policy and university policy.

The university has never taken a position on the appropriateness of the name Nathan Bedford Forrest and whether it should remain on the building in question. The building in question houses the Military Science Department and was named to honor the military accomplishments of Forrest. The original program for the naming of the building said, in part, “It is appropriate that the instructional unit devoted to military science and tactics be named in honor of the intrepid Confederate cavalry leader who won fame with his brilliant raids.” In every military conflict there are great generals who accomplish great things, but who are not necessarily great men. The original resolution by the SGA has been rescinded, which means there is no pending request for action.

When the matter first became an item of public discussion, it was my recommendation to President McPhee that we view this as an opportunity for a public airing of the issues. We have argued that issues being raised on both sides have legitimacy and are matters for open discussion. A university is supposed to be a “Marketplace of Ideas,” where competing notions can be considered through rational discourse. We believe that the best response to a situation like this is to provide a forum through which accurate information can be disseminated and opposing views heard.

As a result of the primary arguments voiced in a variety of forums, a group of faculty, staff and students has identified three basic issues for our initial discussions. Those issues include, but are not limited to: (1) the history of how the name and image of Nathan Bedford Forrest has been used on campus; (2) the development of the Ku Klux Klan and Forrest’s involvement with the organization; and (3) a discussion of the battle of Fort Pillow. I believe we will also want to discuss the wisdom of changing names of public buildings based upon current politics.

We expect to engage recognized scholars from across the South for these discussions. We expect these forums to be open to both the university and local communities. We will identify places in the community where we can host these discussions in order to make them more accessible. Because we expect that new issues for discussion will be identified throughout this process, these forums may extend over several semesters. They will be widely announced and publicized.

As we work to develop these discussions, we will appreciate the patience of everyone on both sides of the issues. While we know this may not be the resolution for which either side was hoping, we believe it is a good university response. You are always welcome to share your thoughts and opinions. My office will act as a conduit throughout this process.

Robert K. Glenn, Ph. D.
Vice President for Student Affairs and
Vice Provost for Enrollment Management
Middle Tennessee State University

Short Comment: I am pleased to see that the school is going about it in this way.  If we can’t have an intelligent discussion about issues relating to history and the representation of the past on our college campuses than we might as well close down the doors.  And no this is not another example of the liberal elite knocking down another pillar of our sacred American heritage.  Some people seem to think that the shaping of our public memory through the naming of sites at the turn of the century and so on was somehow a sacred act that must be forever etched in our collective memory.  We need to see that these earlier acts of identification were rooted in the social, political, and even racial assumptions of the time.  These assumptions inevitably evolve and therefore it is reasonable to expect that these challenges will continue.  Keep in mind that many of the names of these sites would have been challenged had certain groups been allowed to vote and take part in public debate. 

4 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Dec 11, 2006 @ 11:01

    Ruffian, — I have no idea what you are getting at here. Please do more than use the vacuous phrase “politicall correct.”

  • BorderRuffian Dec 11, 2006 @ 10:27

    Many folks of the 1860s wouldn’t pass the Politically Correct Muster Test of today.

    Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology

    Thaddeus Stevens: Abolitionist, promoter of Equal Rights and…

    …”Re-Peopling” (Genocide)-

    “I have found nothing in the writings of Southerners to match what I read this week in a file of unpublished letters of Thaddeus Stevens. The words are echoed in plenty of published correspondence, of course. On Sept. 5, 1862, Stevens hoped the leadership in Washington had ‘a sufficient grasp of mind, and sufficient moral courage, to treat this as a radical revolution, and remodel our institutions …. It would involve the desolation of the South as well as emancipation; and a re-peopling of half the Continent. This ought to be done but it startles most men.'”

    I demand a name change!

  • Kevin Levin Dec 11, 2006 @ 9:56

    Hiram, — I couldn’t agree more. What I find interesting about the arguments against any kind of alteration of our public spaces is this strange tendency to see these spaces as etched in historical stone rather than the product of white political control throughout the Jim Crow era. One blogger even worried that all of this may lead to a decision to sandblast George Washington’s face off of Mount Rushmore. How silly.

  • Hiram Hover Dec 11, 2006 @ 8:57

    Nicely done, Kevin.

    If MTSU is really serious about this “marketplace of ideas” approach, here’s a “competing notion” they ought to consider–name a building after Nat Turner and see what kind of “open discussion” that provokes.

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