The University of Wisconsin has decided not to remove the names of two Klan members from rooms at the Memorial Union — at least not yet.
Former Union director Porter Butts — one of the founders of the very idea of a student union — and actor Frederic March were both members of campus-based Ku Klux Klan groups in the 1920s, and both are honored with room names in Memorial Union — the Frederic March Play Circle and Porter Butts Gallery.
Instead, an ad-hoc study group has recommended a new, multi-year intensive study of the historical and current racial climate on campus.
In the fall of 2017, University of Wisconsin Chancellor Rebecca Blank created the ad-hoc study group to explore the history of UW’s student organizations that were affiliated with or bore the name of the Ku Klux Klan as well as look at the current climate of racism on the UW Campus.
“Our university’s history includes much to celebrate…Today, however, we must reckon with something we should all regret; the history of racism and exclusion on our campus,” Chancellor Blank wrote in a blog post.
In a conference call with reporters Thursday, Chancellor Blank announced that the school will take a number of actions to address both the past and present racial tensions on campus.
Chancellor Blank said the University has committed significant resources to a public history project that will begin in Summer and Fall 2018. It will be a multi-year project that will begin this summer to gather archival and other information about UW-Madison’s racial history on campus and then make those findings publicly available. Blank does not know exactly what the manifestation of the information gathering will be, but it is possible that there would be an exhibit of some kind around campus like at the Memorial Union.
Blank said UW will also fund four new faculty members in four ethnic studies divisions. Blank said the new staff will cost $360,000 per year and she hopes it will deepen the university’s attention to the perspectives of underrepresented groups.
Blank also wants to recruit top scholars from underrepresented groups. She wasn’t able to say what the financial cost of that recruitment process would be, but said it would be substantial. Blank wants to see a more diverse campus.
The study report that provided information about the campus’ history was headed by Dr. Floyd Rose and Dr. Stephen Kantrowitz. Their report found that at least two distinct student organizations bore the name of the Ku Klux Klan. One was formed in 1919 and the other just a few years later.
What stands out is that these Klan based organizations were able to openly recruit new members around campus completely unchecked by the UW Administration.
Two well known alumni, Porter Butts and Fredric March, are memorialized at the Union and were participants in these racist, white supremacy-based fraternity activities.
As debates across the nation are raging about the removal of Confederate memorabilia on public grounds, questions need to be asked about the continued presence of UW campus bearing the names of people who participated in White Power activities.
But both Chancellor Blank and the heads of the Ad-hoc study group say to focus on the removal of specific people’s names is not what needs to transpire right now.
“The Chancellor charged us with reviewing the history,” Kantrowitz said. “Of course, with Charlottesville the question of names was on our minds but in looking at this more deeply we realized we were looking at something more than the names. We didn’t think that was the most important first question. First we think it’s important for the Chancellor to look at the history of these issues and how they are still affecting the campus today.”
Dr. Rose said that the priority he saw was a continued process towards making sure that groups who have been historically marginalized would be able to find a new climate around campus.
Chancellor Blank did not rule out the removal of March and Butts’ names but said the primary focus would be learning how to have a new dynamic at UW currently and making public the history of racism on campus.