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Texas A&M leadership is clearing the air: the much-disputed Lawrence Sullivan Ross statue, honoring the former university president and Confederate general, is staying put.
Interim President John Junkins stressed the school’s intentions to The Texas Tribune on Wednesday, just two days after the university put out a report that characterized the question of the statue’s future as unresolved. Students who have been pushing the university on diversity issues also said they were never told that the issue had been decided.
Junkins said the statue will remain where it is at the center of campus, known as Academic Plaza.
“I hope the communication I put out today hopefully clears up any ambiguity,” Junkins told the Tribune, acknowledging that he should have been clearer about the university’s stance on the statue when the board of regents met earlier this week to discuss diversity initiatives.
On Monday, the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents created a new “action-focused” committee tasked with making recommendations about the statue, among other issues. But on Wednesday, Junkins said the only recommendations the committee would consider would be how to potentially redesign the area around the Ross statue, while providing additional context about his past not only as a former president of Texas A&M and a former governor, but his role as a Confederate general.
University officials said Wednesday that the decision to keep the Ross statue in place is not a new one, and that the diversity committee that has been studying the issue for the past three months was never considering removing the statue. Indeed, in August, System Chancellor John Sharp cited an attorney general opinion that said removing the statue would require an act of the Legislature.
But at least one student who served on the committee said he was unaware that moving the statue was off the table. He called it “disheartening” when he was told by a Tribune reporter Wednesday.
“You can’t say that you appreciate the report and, [say] ‘Yes, we do we have things we need to discuss,’ and in the same breath say ‘It’s not going anywhere,’” said Matthew Francis Jr., a junior who served on the commission as a representative of the TAMU chapter of the NAACP. “What's the point in progress if those who have the power to make progress are just going to continue to double down on the very thing that we're trying to make progress on?”
The report released Monday framed the future of the Ross statue as an undecided issue. It said current students think a final decision needs to be made on the Ross statue by university leaders, and strife and division would continue and damage the university’s reputation if left unaddressed. The committee looked at 19 other universities dealing with similar debates to remove statues, symbols or names on campus.
“These findings show that based on case study trends, if Texas A&M decides against removal of the Ross statue, there is a very likely chance that protests and controversy surrounding it will continue,” the report said, noting that there are questions about whether legislative approval is required to move or remove the statue.
The debate over the Sul Ross statue has persisted for years. But after a summer of protests across the nation demanding racial justice, some TAMU students again began calling for the removal of the monument.
Junkins, who became interim president on Jan. 1, said he was not told prior to assuming the role that the statue would remain in its current position, and that he had not studied the issue until the last month. He did not elaborate as to how the decision to keep the statue came to pass.
His predecessor, Michael Young, originally launched the committee to study race relations on campus four days after two opposing groups held dueling protests in front of the Sul Ross statue.
“This group will be asked to begin with making a recommendation on the Lawrence Sullivan Ross statue in the near future,” Young wrote in June.
When the diversity, equity and inclusion committee was formally announced a month later, the 45-member committee was tasked with “findings” with no mention of the Sul Ross statue. Young set an Oct. 30 deadline for the report, which was published three months late.
Qynetta Caston, a senior and director of the Black Student Alliance Council who has advocated for the statue’s removal, said Wednesday she was also unaware a decision had been made to keep the statue in its place. She said the university has not been transparent with its intentions, adding that the diversity committee led them to believe that the statue’s removal was still a possibility.
“I’m really curious as to why they haven’t told the community their decision on the Sullivan Ross statue,” she said.
The new task force has until March 26 to provide university leadership with possible designs for a new Academic Plaza.
Disclosure: Texas A&M has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.