Who could have thought that a few disembodied heads could cause this much uproar?
A student online petition is floating around with close to 800 signatures to encourage the removal of five problematic busts from Chapman University’s campus. Busts that were coveted tributes from Chapman donors.
The five in question: Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand and Albert Schweitzer.
Albert Schweitzer? Chapman’s guiding light?
But even James Doti, longtime Chapman president, noted a decade before the petitioners were even Chapman students that its hero Schweitzer could be seen as “problematic” because of his staunch belief in French colonialism in mostly black Africa. Though a strong supporter of Schweitzer’s philosophical and philanthropic work, Doti wrote:
“We don’t shy away from those conversations — they are crucial discussions to have and relevant ones.”
But this student “conversation” petition will go nowhere. The administration has made that clear. Especially with President Daniele Struppa up to his head in pandemic-related problems.
But some students are convinced the conservative busts need to at least be balanced out with a more diverse selection. Recently someone spread graffiti-like taped messages on all five busts.
Since 1994, Chapman has maintained its tradition to honor their donor’s contribution to the institution by allowing them to choose any historical figure of their liking to be displayed as a bust. Martin Luther King Jr. was the first. The Albert Schweitzer bust was already on campus and not part of the new program.
The busts, which weigh 50 pounds, stand about six feet tall on their marble pedestals. They each cost about $15,000, also paid for by the donors.
“They are symbolic representations of gifts to endow professorships or chairs on campus,” said Dean of Students Jerry Price.
President Daniele Struppa has refused to remove the controversial statuary.
“They represent a part of our history. They tell us a little bit about who our donors are, and what inspired them to make this gift to us,” Struppa said.
The petition against the five busts was started by sophomore political science major Markos Buhler.
“We feel it is hypocritical as an institution to express support to your marginalized students yet allow for the continued presence of busts that invoke feelings of exclusion and oppression each day as they walk through campus,” Buhler said in his petition proposal email.
Not surprisingly, Justin Buckner, a junior Broadcast Journalism major and president of Chapman Republicans, argues against the liberal students.
“The university is here to educate its students to learn and grow as scholars. When we actively remove different aspects of history that some disagree with, we shield others from reality, Buckner said.
But Buhler’s supporters are greatly concerned that the busts as a whole present the wrong picture. Said Sage Chidera, a junior Film Production major and executive member of Black Student Union:
“My issue primarily comes from the lack of representation with it. We can have those figures on campus if we so please, I guess, but you can’t say that we can have all these figures and only have the representation of one side. I think we only have Martin Luther King Jr. and maybe one other person of color, and I find that so inappropriate.”
The university is aware that the busts lack diversity. That’s changing a little. The most recent bust was of five-time Mexican president Benito Juarez, who led his country to nationalism against foreign interference. The bust was commissioned by the law school and paid for by Southern California Edison.
Busts aside, Struppa insists the university is doing other things to satisfy such diversity complaints.
“We are doing a lot of things that sometimes don’t get enough visibility,” Struppa said. “We are making a strong effort, an unprecedented effort I should say, to hire black faculty and faculty of color. We also continue to develop new courses and new minors that we believe are of interest to marginalized communities.”
Dean Price recognizes it will take time for students to see that.
“We have more to do, my goal is that students will have trust that our heart is in the right place and we are making a genuine effort,” he said. “I don’t think that trust is there yet, and it’s our reasonability to earn it.”
Chidera of BSU calls it “the right start.” But says it falls short of what is needed.
As for the busts, they have their defenders too.
Doti, long-time Chapman president who is now a distinguished chair member of Business and Economics, and his wife Lynn, made a large contribution to endow a chair in economics. Doti selected a bust of conservative economist Milton Friedman to represent the chair.
“He was my teacher and friend at the University of Chicago when I was studying for my doctorate, Doti said. “Given his stature in the profession, I thought he would be a great representative of what economics is all about.”
Here is a closer look at all five busts, and each side of the controversy:
— The Ronald Reagan bust, from the petitioner’s perspective, represents homophobic and racist ideologies because of his involvement with the War on Drugs, what critics see as his frequent racist remarks, and lack of acknowledgement during the AIDs epidemic.
On the opposing side, Reagan is an inspiration to many young Republicans because he was an influential voice for modern conservatism. He won two landslide victories when he was president and his supporters credit him for ending the Cold War.
The Reagan bust was sponsored by Doy and Dee Henley. They were longtime Chapman contributors and close friends with George Argyros, Chapman’s primary benefactor. They were also strong Reagan supporters.
— The Milton Friedman bust was called into question because as stated in the petition, “Friedman inferred that Free Market Conservatism would solve racism, which blindly disregards how entrenched racism is within our country and economy.”
On the opposing side, Friedman was acknowledged as being one of the greatest economists of the 20thcentury, along with winning a Nobel Prize in economics. In addition to that, he was also a highly respected professor at the University of Chicago where he developed many theories in free-market capitalism.
— Ayn Rand, petitioners complain, “believed Indigenous people did not have the right to live in this country, looked down on LGBTQ+ people, and prompted traditional gender roles.”
Supporters of Rand argue she was a philosophical genius because of the arguments she made in her best-selling books. She was also the biggest supporter of the U.S. and looked up to the founders of this country. Rand saw eye to eye with many conservatives because of her belief in the concept of Individualism vs. Collectivism.
Her bust is a gift from Chapman donors Rebecca and William Dunn, in honor of Vernon Smith, the Nobel Prize winner in experimental economics who now runs the major research lab at Chapman.
— Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher is criticized because, as stated in the petition, Thatcher “prompted section 28 which was an anti-gay measure that forced LGTBQ+ clubs and groups to disband and LGBTQ+ literature off the shelves, and Despised immigrants from other cultures (nonwhite) as she feared they would change the culture of Britain.”
Whereas, supporters are inspired by Thatcher’s devotion to save America from recession as she stagnated the economy. Thatcher was also a big critic of communism, Marxism, and socialism.
The bust is sponsored by Harry and Diane Rinker, longtime major Chapman contributors. (The new Health Science Center is named for them.)
— The Albert Schweitzer bust, which is the biggest of all the busts displayed on campus, is being called into question because Schweitzer, “practiced the white savior complex and believed those in Africa were beneath him and did not think they deserved education or equal medical treatment,” as stated in the petition.
On the other hand, Schweitzer has long been considered the “guiding spirit” of the university. He was highly respected because of his numerous professions – doctor, humanitarian, philosopher, musician—and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952 for his reverence of life philosophy — that good life must be enhanced by actions to help others — that led to his work in Africa where he administered a hospital still thriving today. .
Schweitzer also has a significant history with many of Chapman’s faculty and supporters. The back of the Schweitzer bust says it’s in honor of Valerie Scudder. She was a major Chapman donor and a friend of Schweitzer’s. The university’s Schweitzer Institute is one of its major programs for research and student scholarships.
Doti wrote that Schweitzer was “one of the great men of the 20th century, doctor, humanitarian, ethicist, philosopher, musician theologian, and Nobel laureate. . . Schweiter was a man who didn’t just mouth platitudes about helping the world — he plunged in and did the work.”
Several others are honored with busts because of their connection to Chapman. Such as Placido Domingo, who was on hand for the opening of construction for the Musco Center for the Arts. And Elie Wiesel, the Jewish author and Holocaust survivor who held a five-year chair as visiting professor at Chapman.
It may be difficult for anybody to find much fault with Chapman’s next bust: Two-time Nobel Prize winning physicist Madame Curie.