The Smoking Gun

In 1854 UVM published an account of its semi-centennial celebration. Why 1854? Because the university, though “founded” in 1791 didn’t open its doors until 1801, and didn’t graduate its first class (of four students) until 1804. Part of the celebration was an oration by the attorney and publisher James R. Spalding, Class of 1840. In it, Spalding talks directly about what made UVM unique:

“Now I maintain that, however it may be with the graduates of other institutions, the graduates of this university are bound to take the side of the inherent Rights of Man against the vested Rights of Power, and to contend for the same with… inextinguishable faith and unfaltering courage.” (The italics are his.)

And there you have it: the smoking gun, proof that the unique self-understanding of UVM was its commitment to new democratic freedoms. At its first commemoration of its own history UVM pointed to itself as “bound” to take the side of the inherent Rights of Man against the vested Rights of Power. Spalding went on: the criterion that which UVM graduates had for judging government, he added, “which others may not” – UVM’s “actualizing idea” was “the right of the individual to order all his relations with freedom according to Reason.” (Again the italics are his.)

The Rights of Man; opposition to the Rights of Power; a belief in the rights of individuals to run their own lives; this was teh UVM credo, and what made the university unique.

This is exactly the heritage we need to reclaim. Don’t hold your breath waiting for the administration to look up from their spreadsheets or to stop planning their perks. Recklaim it yourself.

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How to Make a Great University

If you ask an educated person to name some great universities UVM’s name would not be on the list. Oxford and Berkeley have little to fear from us. But UVM nevertheless has a claim to greatness that Oxford or Berkeley or Stanford or Yale can never hope it match. The problem is that UVM itself has forgotten its own greatness.


UVM is great in the same way Vermont is. Every once in a while the New York Times will send a reporter to Vermont to write an anthropological piece about the quaint and strange rituals of our rural ways. They particularly like to write about town meeting. But those of us who live here know who the real provincials are. We know that Vermont is not quaint but great, great not because of its views and skiing (those are nice too) but great because our founders built a society that prizes both freedom and unity, that prizes, in other words, both individual autonomy and our willingness to be autonomous individuals together. That prizes, in a word, democracy.

What UVM has that Oxford, Berkeley, Stanford, Yale and all other great universities lack is the status as the first university committed to the ideal of democratic education, as well as a continuing heritage of expanding that ideal. Lafayette, Andrew Harris, our Civil War dead, Morrill and Dewey all, in their own way, were committed to and succeeded in advancing a vision of a democratic society. Our message to our students, our alumni, and the world should be that we are still committed to that vision.

The reason we should reclaim Lafayette, build a monument to Andrew Harris, or, say, create campus tours to emphasize our ignored public art is not just to make a prettier campus. It is to make a university where every first-year student is instructed about the university’s precious – and great – heritage, and every senior and all alumni are reminded about the country they should be using their educations to make.

If we do that, UVM will be a great university. Let’s start by reclaiming Lafayette.

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How should we pay for it?

Last winter I taught in Waterman, and all semester had to compete with the sound of jackhammering and the screech of stone-cutting saws just outside my window. As they might say in the ed school, it wasn’t exactly conducive to a positive learning environment. What was going on? Workers were building a new plaza in front of the building, where a somewhat scraggly lawn had been before.

Waterman Landscaping

A big part of the project was the construction of a big, mysterious curved tent that went up sometime around when it got cold. I asked a worker about it one day and he said the tent was for the stone wall that was part of the project. They had to keep the mortar warm enough so that it could dry out naturally, otherwise it wouldn’t work.  I personally thought that one good way to keep the mortar warm enough would be to build the wall in the summer. That plan would lower costs and also cut down on the noise inside my classroom. But wiser heads than mine must have wanted the plaza done for graduation.

The Vermonter in me also thought that a designer stone wall that doesn’t actually divide anything from anything else is kind of fake. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall. But I have to admit that the plaza turned out nicely, and as you can see students seem to like lounging on the wall when the weather is nice.

It’s a nice bit of landscape architecture and it’s probably just a coincidence that a lot of money was spent to build it in front of the building where the administration works. Which leads me to Lafayette: moving him would cost almost nothing. He’s not even standing on a slab. All UVM would need to do is prepare a small flat patch of ground in front of Old Mill and get one of those flatbed trucks with a crane on it. Presto! Or we could move him to the already-prepared spot where the cat statue is, then throw the cat in the back of somebody’s pickup truck and haul it to the gym. Even cheaper!

The money could come from the funds that are no-doubt set aside to landscape the administration’s parking lot. Where there’s a will there’s a way. All we need is the will to reclaim Lafayette and we can do it.

The memorial Andrew Harris deserves may require a little fundraising. But we can do that too.

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UVM’s Justin Morrill Monument

All over America there are Morrill Halls on college campuses. They are all named in honor of the same man, Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont, the author of the Land Grant College Act (Morrill Act) of 1862. Through this act, Congress established funding for a public college in every state devoted to the education of ordinary people. These colleges, while not ignoring the “higher graces” were specifically enjoined to teach the “practical avocations,” with specifically mandated courses in engineering, agriculture, and – because the law passed during the Civil War – military science.

Hence the land grant colleges, many of which are now great state universities, established education as a democratic priority, not only in expanding the number and kind of people –  for whom higher education was available – “the sons [and soon the daughters] of toil” -but in expanding the kind of subjects thought appropriate for higher study. The Morrill Act is therefore a great landmark in the history of higher education as well as a great achievement in the establishment of a democratic society.

UVM became, and still is, Vermont’s land grant college. Morrill, a blacksmith’s son and a largely self-educated man, was a UVM trustee for over 30 years (1865-1898). So it’s entirely appropriate that our own Morrill Hall, built on the Southeast corner of the UVM Green between 1904 and 1907, houses the College of Agriculture in his honor.

Morrrill Hall Building

A closer look shows the building’s name as well the state seal:

Morrill Hall

But the real treat is inside. At the first floor stair landing we find this marble bust of Morrill, with its explanatory signage untouched since the bust was put in place in 1942:

Morrill Bust

The sculptor, Preston Powers, was the son of the sculptor Hiram Powers, who as a young man had decamped from Vermont to Florence to learn his trade. Preston was the perfect choice for this commission, and the bust is a terrific piece of public art. (There are also two portraits of Morrill on the same floor.)

All in all it’s a perfect, untouched, wonderful memorial, and the bust in particular is a wonderful tribute of the other land grant colleges to Morrill and UVM. The only problem with it is that the overwhelming majority of UVM students have no idea it exists. The Morrill monument needs no changes. But it does need to be placed in the context of UVM’s connection to the history of democratic education, and every UVM student should be taught that legacy.

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More on Andrew Harris

Well, you shouldn’t believe everything you read. It turns out Oberlin didn’t admit any black students in 1835, they just voted then to accept students without regard to race. They didn’t have an actual black graduate until 1844. It seems, then, that Andrew Harris was no later than the fifth black college graduate in the United States (or the sixth if you count Alexander Twilight):

Harris was also almost certainy the first black college graduate to have been a Garrisonian (that is, radically egalitarian) abolitionist. His speech to the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1839 advocating equality for free people of color in the North indicates just how radical he was. In other words, in 1839 Harris did not simply believe that slavery was offensive to God, but that racism was as well. That made him radical indeed. Even among abolitionists there were people who would not go so far.

Sometime between his 1838 graduation from UVM and his premature death in 1841 Harris became the Pastor of the Presbyterian St. Mary’s Street Church in Philadelphia. Given that position, his education and his beliefs it’s almost certain that Harris regularly and forthrightly attacked slavery. If we’re lucky there may be more out there about him. But we already know enough to place him firmly in UVM’s democratic tradition, and that he deserves to be remembered by the university.

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UVM’s Second-Worst Piece of Public Art

On the lawn of the history department lies UVM’s second-worst piece of public art.  (The “Cat” sculpture, given the combination of its eager embrace of banality, poor execution and glorified central location, remains # 1.) Still, “Lifeline/Lebenslinie” is pretty bad. Here’s what it’s supposed to look like:


It’s nothing special, but not all that terrible either, right? It’s one of those obscure modern pieces that doesn’t make any sense unless you know something about it, in which case it becomes mildly interesting.  In this case, “Lifeline,” “a symbol for lost unity, but with the lifeline of hope running through it,” was a gift to the UVM Center for Holocaust Studies. What’s it doing on the history department’s lawn? Well, the late historian Raul Hilberg, whose pioneering 1961 work The Destruction of the European Jews is a gigantic landmark in Holocaust studies, was a member of the UVM history faculty. He’s the reason why we have a Center for Holocaust Studies in the first place.

Given all that as background, the sculpture begins to make some sense. We can look at it and muse about the fragility of life, how lifelines are fragile and easily broken but somehow nonetheless life continues, how individual lives run through and often counter to rigid ideological “blocks,” and so on. It’s not great art, but it’s not terrible, either.

The problem is that the sculpture doesn’t look anything like that anymore. Here’s what it looks like now:

Lifeline 1

It’s covered up, and has been for a long time. I took this picture on a perfect 70-degree fall day. If the sculpture’s not on display then, when is it? Certainly not this summer (or all last year if I recall correctly, and maybe not the year before that). Just to make sure I took the covers off:

Lifeline 2

Yup, the dead leaves, grass clippings and all the little insects indicate that the sculpture has been dormant for a looong time. That stray bit of granite thrown in the corner doesn’t help relieve the general impression of decrepitude.

As public sculpture “Lifeline” is pretty darn useless. In fact, it should serve as a template for the sculpture committee about how NOT to do public art in the future:

1) Don’t put up a “meaningful” work of public art so esoteric that you need an ESP link to the artist’s head to make sense of it.

2) Don’t stick it in some obscure corner where nobody will see it or ever give it a second thought again.

3) Don’t bother with any outside sculpture that will need to be protected from a Vermont winter. Before you know it it will be “protected” all year round.

4) Don’t stick it flat on the ground where it will accumulate dead leaves and grass clippings.

You’ll wind up with something useless.

“Lifeline” is probably salvageable. Prop it up vertically and give it a bit of explanatory signage and it could be a relatively OK if fairly pedestrian piece of art. I’d move it to the Center for Holocaust Studies, too. Other than the center itself, this is the closest thing UVM has to a Holocaust memorial. But as it is, it’s just an impediment to whoever cuts the history department’s lawn. And its neglect is an insult to the generous donors who gave it to the university.

But first things first, UVM administration. Let’s put Lafayette where he belongs, OK?

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UVM’s Best Memorial

UVM Civil War Memorial

UVM’s best memorial is in the John Dewey Lounge in Old Mill. Dewey Lounge is a dead spot now, inexplicably locked half the time, but for almost 100 years it was the center of campus life as the university chapel. Shrunken in the renovation of Old Mill, it nevertheless remains the most atmospheric room on campus. Here we find this unobtrusive yet elegant memorial. Translated from the Latin it simply says

“In grateful and perpetual memory of those alumni of this university who perished defending us all in civil war 1861-1865”

It then lists the names of nineteen soldiers, their class years, and their regiments. Pointedly, it does not indicate their ranks. That is unimportant beside the fact that they were all sons of UVM. And this, too, is in the lost democratic tradition of the university.

But in the current, bureaucratized UVM, with all the institutional memory of a directional college built for commuters in the 1970s, they are forgotten.

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