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James Tinney

George Vlahakis

Last modified: Monday, March 25, 2002

Chancellor Brehm announces decision on Benton mural

Indiana University Bloomington Chancellor Sharon Stephens Brehm announced Monday (March 25) her decision to maintain the controversial Benton mural in the lecture room in Woodburn Hall.

Brehm said she is "convinced that moving or covering the mural would be morally wrong because it would, in effect, do what Benton refused to do: that is, it would hide the shameful aspects of Indiana's past. I might note that trying to move the mural would probably damage it, perhaps destroy it. But the major issue here is a moral one, not one of cost or even of preservation."

She also emphasized the importance of diversity on the Bloomington campus. "The major issue running throughout all of the discussions and conversations over these last several weeks is not, in fact, the Benton mural. It is instead the status of diversity on our campus. The real issue, the real test of character, for Indiana University Bloomington is the strength of its commitment to diversity."

The noted American artist Thomas Hart Benton created the mural -- parts of which are now on display at three sites on the Bloomington campus -- for the State of Indiana exhibit at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. IU President Herman B Wells saw the mural there, remembered it and later arranged for it to be brought to Bloomington to be placed in the new IU Auditorium. Sixteen central panels of the mural were installed at the Auditorium. Other panels were placed in the University Theater and in Woodburn Hall.

The Woodburn mural has proven controversial over the years because it includes an image of robed members of the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross. It also includes an image of a white nurse taking care of a black child and a white child. Historians say the images represent Benton's effort to display the full array of Indiana history: postive and negative.

Over the years, some black students have objected to the KKK image on the mural, saying it is a racist symbol that makes them feel unwelcome and creates a hostile learning environment.

Brehm praised members of the Black Student Union who raised the issue of the mural, expressing her "appreciation to the leadership and members of the Black Student Union who have so eloquently expressed their concerns in our meetings."

"If you are an African American, you don't know the history of the mural, you have no context in which to interpret it, and you have no choice about seeing it -- it's quite likely that this will be unpleasant and discomforting," Brehm said. She said that she agreed with the students that the existing education program for classes meeting in Woodburn 100 had not worked well.

In order to respond to the students' concerns and to the university's historic commitment to diversity, Brehm announced a three-point plan.

First, the educational program informing students who use the Woodburn classroom about the history and intent of the mural will be strengthened, so that it is required for all groups meeting in the room.

Second, the chancellor announced the creation of the "One for Diversity Fund," to raise private support for creating "more art, more diverse art, on the Bloomington campus -- art that will celebrate, recognize and memorialize the multicultural past and present of both Indiana and Indiana University, as well as the importance of diversity for education." Through this fund established by the IU Foundation, the chancellor intends to "strengthen our commitment to multicultural artists by commissioning their work, hiring them on our faculty, and inviting them to campus for exhibits and conferences."

The third aspect of the program announced by Brehm is to enhance the Bloomington campus' commitment to diversity by including a section on diversity in all summer orientation plans, continuing to provide significant funding for strategic hiring and student retention efforts, and calling upon the deans and the faculty to integrate diversity issues into the curriculum.

She also indicated that she would deliver a "State of Diversity" address every year early in the fall semester.

In concluding her remarks, she noted that "the combination of a powerful mural and motivated students has brought us here today to a much stronger commitment to diversity on the Bloomington campus. Both the Benton mural and the students remind us that we must remain vigilant about injustice and never assume that it has vanished from our midst. We need the students and the Benton mural to keep our eyes on the true prize of diversity, respect and human dignity."