OPINION: Guest writer

RANDALL B. WOODS: An opportunity

Great potential in Fulbright legacy

It seems that the University of Arkansas--and the state as a whole--is having to choose between J. William Fulbright the segregationist and J. William Fulbright the enlightened internationalist. That does not have to be the case.

The University of Oxford, Oriel College in particular, has since the 1960s been under intense pressure to change the name of the famed Rhodes Scholarship program in light of Cecil Rhodes' record as colonialist and exploiter of Black labor in South Africa.

Instead of discarding the name, Oxford changed what a Rhodes Scholarship means. Social activism--working for an NGO or engaging in community action--became the main criteria for admission (in addition to academic distinction) rather than prowess on the soccer or rugby pitch.

For years Washington and Lee has been struggling with its label. The college has attempted to compensate for its namesakes' identification with slavery with an aggressive affirmative action initiative and the massive Johnson scholarship program. The latter is raising up a cohort of very different W&L graduates. Namely, individuals in all fields of endeavor from business to education to engineering to law to art who are working to make America's dream of becoming a virtuous republic a reality.

It is likely that Lee will not survive--he was a traitor to his country--but that Washington, who along with Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe deplored slavery and said so, will.

Arkansas has the opportunity to identify the Fulbright name not only with student exchange and human rights abroad but with racial justice at home. Fulbright often stated that the answer to racism was education. During the 1960s, African Americans needed much more than that, at minimum an active federal government using the force of law to protect their rights. But JWF had a point.

One of the first things the University of Arkansas can do to combat racism is to modify its core curriculum to require all students to take two semesters of American history and a course in American national government. Currently, the only requirement is one course, either American national government or one semester of U.S. history. There are a goodly number of individuals graduating from this institution who do not know which came first: the Civil War or the Revolutionary War.

Two years ago, I taught the U.S. survey course for the first time in quite a while. Fully one-third of the content of each semester was devoted to matters of race and civil rights: slavery, Indian removal, abolitionism, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Compromise of 1877 in which the North restored control of the South to its former plantation owners, the emergence of Jim Crow, populism and its about-face on Black enfranchisement, the Black community itself (the debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois and the Harlem Renaissance, for example), discrimination in the armed forces during two world wars, the Long Civil Rights Movement culminating with the mobilization of America's Black churches and subsequently its student population, the Poor People's march, incarceration as a tool of racial oppression, and so on.

The Black experience is only part of America's story, but it lies at the heart of the central dilemma in American history: a nation devoted to equality and justice for all but in which racism was and is systemic.

When I first came to the U of A, the Legislature mandated two semesters of American history. At the time, the state's solons were concerned more with protecting Arkansas boys and girls from the scourge of communism than with acquainting them with the nation's sordid record on racial justice.

I am on principle opposed to legislative interference with academic curricula, but it doesn't have to come to that. The University of Arkansas' faculty can act on its own. Admittedly, for it to do so will be to fight against a rising tide.

By the beginning of the 21st century, the pervasive emphasis on STEM was pushing the humanities to the periphery of the curricula of state institutions. That did not have to be the case; it is not an either/or situation. STEM (and kudos to the Walton Family Foundation on its recent $194 million gift) is of fundamental importance intellectually and economically, but there are certain things of which it is not capable.

Why not fund the already thriving African and African American Studies Program (which includes history, political science, literature, sociology, anthropology, and other disciplines) at the U of A to the point where it can make a clear difference in the struggle for racial justice and inclusion?

Since he became dean of Fulbright College, Todd Shields had been trying to raise money to endow academic chairs for each of the Little Rock Nine. Thus far the project has attracted little or no support. I'm talking about a program equal to the King Fahd Middle East Studies Program at the U of A which was funded at $25 million and ranks among the top five programs of its kind in the United States, or the new School of Art, or the projected STEM/business institute.

May I suggest that the Fulbright legacy is a living, breathing, evolving thing that transcends the person? Or if it is not, it has that potential.


Randall Woods is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, and author of "John Lewis Waller: A Black Odyssey." The opinions expressed in this column are his alone.