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What exactly is happening at Ole Miss in terms of the racism these days?

Couple of major incidents have transpired at Ole Miss in the semi-recent past: a noose appeared around a statute of James Meredith, the university’s first black student (a fraternity was basically expelled as a result of that), and there was heckling at a showing of “The Laramie Project” a few months back. The FBI is getting involved, and there’s also reports of alcohol and expletives being thrown at a black student near campus.

The New York Times has a good story about the climate on campus now and how some can’t give up the confederate past of the state and school. It should probably be noted that the street which encircles the basketball arena is called “Confederate Drive” and one of the first things a visitor to campus will see is several remnants of the confederacy. That likely doesn’t help matters. In fact, one of their professors seems to view it that way as well:

“If you bill yourself as Ole Miss and you call yourself the Rebels and the first thing a visitor to the campus sees is a Confederate monument, whether intentionally or not, it conveys an image,” said Charles W. Eagles, a history professor. “And that image is an image tied to the past, not a 21st-century image.”

Professor Eagles, who wrote what many here believe is the definitive account of the university’s integration, argued that the university must take more forceful action that could anger its supporters.

“If I could do one thing, the place would never be called Ole Miss again,” he said.

Perhaps even more troubling is the sequence of events involving Meredith, whose statute was noosed:

“What has happened in America, particularly in Mississippi, is a breakdown of moral character,” Mr. Meredith, 80, said in a telephone interview. “It’s a lack of teaching of right and wrong and good and bad, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. That’s what the problem is.”

Mr. Meredith said the “nonsense” episode would intensify his effort to have his likeness removed from the university’s campus.

“It’s a false idol, and it’s an insult not only to God, it’s an insult to me,” Mr. Meredith said.

The overall shame of this situation is that Oxford is a tremendous town, Ole Miss is rising in other ways (highest-ever ACT scores, etc.) but — because of the actions of certain small groups that can’t get over ties to the past, it will always be broadly looked at as a racist, backwater university — and this is essentially no matter what it does. There’s a good quote from a student in the NYT article about how it could possibly change for the better:

“We don’t take ownership of this university,” Jonece Dunigan, a senior, said. “My life is kind of centered around work and going to school and studying until like 3 in the morning. The reason why these things happen again and again and again is because we allow them to happen again and again and again.”

Ms. Dunigan, who is black, added, “Once the students step up and take ownership of the university and say, ‘This is our place, this is what we stand for,’ we can actually start making progress.”

Maybe it is as simple as ownership. But the university should consider whole-sale changes — to name, to mascot, to layout — to avoid those deep connections, even if they are cultural. Their actual brand is at stake, and at the end of the day — even with a huge endowment — that’s really all a university has.

Ted Bauer

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