A statue of Abraham Lincoln in the student union is at the center of a debate at Minnesota State University about how the university highlights figures in history who have complex legacies.
A committee of university faculty presented recommendations to the campus community Thursday regarding the future of the statue. The committee is advocating for more comprehensive education around Lincoln’s impact to be included with the 7-foot-tall statue of the country’s 16th president. They also recommend possibly putting it in a less prominent place.
“We aren’t looking to remove the statue,” said Matthew Loayza, dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and member of the committee. “We are looking to add perspectives and nuances.”
The Lincoln statue, which was donated to the school by alumni in 1925, was identified this year as a monument of concern by the Campus Buildings and Landmarks team because Lincoln approved the hanging of the 38 Dakota men in Mankato following the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.
The team was tasked by MSU President Richard Davenport to review the names of buildings and landmarks on campus last fall. Davenport made the decision to examine the names after several campus deans reached out and expressed a desire to study the issue. College leaders across the country were taking steps to remove monuments and names of controversial figures from other campuses.
Matt Cecil, interim provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, said the statue will not be leaving campus.
“We don’t believe in hiding history away. We don’t believe in taking down statues,” he said. “This is basically an effort to do what we do — educate people and spark conversations.”
Discussions around how the Lincoln statue fits in the context of a more diverse society has a long history at MSU, but this is the first time university officials have taken steps to address it.
Indigenous students and allies have brought forward requests to the University Senate and administrators over the years to remove the statue because of Lincoln’s role in the Dakota War.
The Campus Buildings and Landmarks team held a focus group this year with underrepresented students on campus, including Indigenous students, to get feedback on the statue and what students would like to see.
They talked about wanting the statue moved to a more archival location such as the library where it can be a place of reflection and education about Lincoln, including the harm he caused various communities. They also talked about removing the statue or adding others of more diverse figures to help be more representative of the student population.
The committee members decided to not recommend removing the statue because they say they believe it can serve as an educational tool for students to dive into the complexities of slavery and racism. Creating a museum-like exhibit to display with the statue provides an opportunity to engage in discussion about Lincoln’s impact, they said.
Lincoln has a complex history. He is considered one of the greatest presidents in U.S. history because of his role in abolishing slavery, but he also played a significant part in the hanging of the 38 Dakota men in Mankato by approving their death sentences. A rushed mass trial of Dakota warriors was held following the Dakota War, resulting in a military commission sentencing 303 Dakota men to death. Lincoln reviewed the sentencing and commuted the death sentences of 264 men.
Gwen Westerman, a committee member and English professor, said most people don’t think about the impact Lincoln had on the people who were not hanged. The men and their families were expelled from Mankato and sent to a prison in Davenport, Iowa. A letter written by one of these man said Lincoln’s consideration was the reason he was alive.
“I’m not minimizing the hanging of the 38,” said Westerman, who is Dakota. “But we also need to take into consideration the descendants of the men who were spared and how that impacted generations of people.”
The Thursday meeting was an opportunity to gather opinions from the community on the recommendations. A survey was provided for attendees to give feedback. The committee plans to incorporate responses into the final recommendations, which will be presented to Davenport this semester. With incoming President Edwarch Inch assuming the position in July, members hope he will want to learn about the issue and determine what the next steps will be.
“These are teachable moments and that’s why we made the recommendations we did,” Westerman said.
The committee is also drafting a policy on how to include the campus in the process of naming buildings. The goal is to create more intentional inclusive naming practices at the university.