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Bhaskar ’21: Brown should not remove statues of Roman emperors from campus. Here’s why.

In late September, a group of Brown University students, faculty and administrators held a virtual town-hall to discuss the implications and future treatment of several monuments that currently occupy Brown’s campus. On Oct. 13, the Undergraduate Council of Students began to discuss and vote on possibly endorsing an initiative to eliminate and replace Roman statues on campus. The initiative, led by the student group Decolonization at Brown, primarily focuses on the removal of two statues: Caesar Augustus, located in front of the Sharpe Refectory, and Marcus Aurelius, located in Ruth J. Simmons Quadrangle. The rationale for the removal of these statues reflected concerns that the statues promote the colonial “imperialism” advocated by the Roman Empire and extol Roman “virtues” of white supremacy, imperial domination and elitism intrinsic to the University.

In light of nationwide decisions to remove monuments that uphold legacies of white supremacy and slavery, it is unsurprising that the University has received an outcry of support to follow suit with controversial art on campus. However, the failure to recognize the complex ontologies of these pieces, as well as their immense potential as means for confronting the evolution and redefinition of past scholarship is a gross oversight and merits redress. As an educational institution founded upon the ideas of intellectual discourse and the unrestricted exchange of ideas, the University should not endorse the removal of perspectives, art or legacies pertaining to darker aspects of University history, simply to cater to dominant ideals at the cost of discounting academic dialogue.

Retaining opportunities for students to differ in opinions regarding artistic installments, publication and University policies are critical to maintaining a university-level commitment to academic conversation. Art must be judged on quality and impact. Any resultant discomfort from scrutinizing art is necessary for facilitating discourse and unveiling the complex ramifications intrinsic to most pieces of material culture. Removing or refusing to restore certain historical statues on Brown’s campus, purely based on the grounds that these artifacts reflect outdated ideals and are potentially problematic to the current viewpoints promoted by the University, is tantamount to censorship. These actions belie students the opportunity to engage with the lasting influences of the past upon current scholarship and from confronting both the constructive and unsavoury realities of the University’s history. 

Explicit removal of these statues could set a dangerously restrictive precedent for guiding future endeavours to study any nuanced subjects surrounding historically elitist, Eurocentric or colonial topics. Censoring works of art that may be upsetting to a group of students is a short cry away from the expulsion of similar “troubling” but relevant content from academic syllabi. As a compromise to the elimination of these monuments, re-labelling and transporting the statues near the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World (as was initially outlined), or to a similar museological atmosphere will facilitate contextualization in a more explicitly educational environment, while preserving the opportunity for dialogue. 

The statues of Caesar Augustus and Marcus Aurelius provide opportunities to access, contextualize and confront past avenues of knowledge and to use material relics to recognize that human legacies and artistic representation can almost never be ascribed a binary label of “good” or “bad,” but must be engaged with to reveal the many layers and perspectives present. Both Marcus Aurelius and Caesar Augustus were influential men in their own right whose legacies were grounded in interdisciplinary learning and originality in the fields of history, philosophy and the classics — several of the fields that the University prioritizes. The portrayal of influential Roman figures within the United States serves as a nod to institutions within American society such as campaigns, legal systems, foreign policies and government that were influenced by our fledgling nation’s entanglements with Mediterranean scholarship.

However, the presence of these statues on campus may serve as a physical reminder of the negative vestiges of inequality, slavery and colonialism that were also entrenched within the United States and the University. Like many elite universities, Brown University has a legacy rooted strongly in slavery: several early benefactors of the University made their fortunes from participating in the slave trade and University Hall was partially constructed through slave labor. Preserving monuments that contextualize the values and reflections of these early periods in University history can foster conversation and consideration of the changing representations of the classics and the measures that still must be taken to include a more diverse array of perspectives into University curricula. These statues serve as instruments for understanding the evolution of academic learning and allow individuals from all backgrounds to learn about, discuss and reclaim the Mediterranean ideals and classical canon that were foundational to shaping the trajectory of academia worldwide. Intentionality in promoting informed discourse around the statues will allow us to reconcile the multiple legacies of the statues and reward engagement with history and public art around campus, rather than immediately shunning perspectives that spark controversy.

Removing Roman statues on Brown’s campus is not a true solution, but represents a performative and poorly executed attempt to publicize the University’s spuriously “progressive” concessions to the vacuous objections regarding these statues. Genuine efforts at decolonizing Brown must work to address vested, often intangible, issues within the University and its place within the Providence community. Maintaining a commitment to an anti-racist curriculum, providing access to diverse perspectives within academia — especially through sharing scholarship from Indigenous and non-white authors and retaining courses and concentration tracks that center on expanding non-dominant and historically disenfranchised narratives, such as within the field of development studies — represent tangible measures to pioneer progress in the creation of an education that prioritizes authentic dialogue and recognizes nuanced and diverse perspectives. 

In addition, incorporating installments made by Indigenous artists or artists of colour would be a welcome means of supplementing these efforts and promoting diversity within Brown’s artistic scape. But it cannot be used to replace existing historical and artistic relics, which offer ample opportunities for the exchange of ideas and reflection on past scholarship.

Now, more than ever, the world needs graduates and scholars who are able to recognize the many intricacies and layers of the past and who can use this multifaceted knowledge to consume historical and artistic vestiges of the past with intentionality and a capacity to use such lessons to guide progress. The University must move beyond tendencies to censor “uncomfortable” or “controversial” topics that fail to echo the outspoken post-modernist and left-leaning images associated with Brown in favour of upholding the tenets of free inquiry and the preservation of nuance within the exploration of historical relics. Outlining tangible steps for creating robust anti-racist curricula, while equipping students with the patience, wisdom, and skill-set to grapple with uncomfortable realities and relics of the past, is crucial for the University to uphold its mission of “communicating and preserving knowledge and understanding in a spirit of free inquiry.”

Nidhi Bhaskar ’21 can be reached at nidhi_bhaskar@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.



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