According the Franklin College Faculty Senate committee on Baldwin Hall, “UGA stood behind a rigid narrative of half-truths that were not credible and that certainly will not withstand the judgement of history.”
Ouch! What led them to this conclusion?
My thanks to filmmaker Joe Lavine who provided advice in the making of this video. If you get a chance to see his documentary, Below Baldwin, I highly recommend it! There is so much more to this story than a 10-minute video has room for.
A long-awaited report released this month turned out to be extremely damning to those in positions of authority in our community. The report criticized how an important investigation was communicated to the public, and showed how actions taken in secret were not in accord with ethical standards. I’m talking of course about the report from the Franklin College Faculty Senate committee on Baldwin Hall!
Maybe you’ve already seen the documentary “Below Baldwin” by filmmaker Joe Lavine, but if not, I’ll fill you in. This ongoing controversy began when UGA started on the recent expansion to Baldwin Hall in 2015. Baldwin Hall is next to the Jackson Street Cemetery, which used to be named Old Athens Cemetery, and is, literally, the oldest cemetery in Athens, dating back to the 1790s. It was larger, originally, than it’s current, official boundaries, and during construction of the Baldwin Hall expansion, UGA work crews unearthed human remains. When it became apparent that most of the remains were from people of African descent, the situation started to become tense. UGA’s handling of those remains and poor communication with the public during the process of re-interment was sharply criticized by black community members and UGA faculty alike.
Due to these and other concerns, the Faculty Senate of Franklin College, the largest college at UGA, created a committee to research the Baldwin Hall issue in September of 2018. This committee’s report back to the full Senate was recently finalized and published on April 17. It was presented at a meeting on April 23rd.
So, what’s in the report? Let’s break it down.
The goal of this committee was “to evaluate the concerns of Franklin faculty and determine their merit when possible.” But I heard from UGA President Jere Morehead that the University handled this situation appropriately, so what concerns could they possibly have? Let’s see.
Concern #1: Lack of input from archaeologists
From the very beginning of the planning process, UGA made missteps. They failed to consult archaeological experts who would have told them about the strong likelihood of finding grave sites outside the formal boundaries of the Old Athens Cemetery. So they should have known, and it shows that there were issues with UGA’s construction procedures. On the plus side, the report notes that UGA -has adopted- new procedures that will solve this problem.
But, even with these changes, some faculty still don’t seem to be comfortable with the lack of input from archaeologists in this case, why?
“I can understand if the adjacent property was a forest, or a football field or a parking lot, but it was a cemetery.”
If UGA had known about the graves in their construction area ahead of time, everything that happened after would have been illegal under state law. They would have had to get a permit to move the remains, which would have caused construction delays. They really should have known what they would find underneath that old parking lot, but since it was accidental, UGA was able to complete their construction with minimal delay. The report concludes that the discovery of human remains was most likely accidental. But… if UGA was skirting state law to begin with, it would make their defensiveness seen later on … make a bit more sense in context.
Concern #2: Secrecy and lack of community consultation
I recommend reading the report yourself to get the full picture of what happened here. But really quickly, the concern is that UGA never consulted with the community about their plans in a meaningful way, and that failing to do so violated well-established ethical standards. UGA was certainly aware of these standards, because they were told repeatedly by two experts in archaeology, Dr. Laurie Reitsema, Director of UGA’s Bioarchaeology and Biochemistry Lab and Dr. Deborah Bolnick from the University of Texas. Interestingly, UGA may also have been told the exact same thing by the State Archaeologist’s Office (or OSA) according to Bryan Tucker, the head of that office. UGA President Jere Morehead had claimed in the Red & Black that they followed the guidance of OSA at every step of the process. So… huh. Did they?
Even worse, it seems more likely that OSA was following UGA’s guidance and not the other way around.
To summarize, UGA had long since made their plans to reinter the remains at Oconee Hills Cemetery. The reburial pit had already been dug when this letter was written, supposedly giving instructions on how to do it. It seems as if UGA was using the State Archaeologist’s Office to legitimize plans they had already made, and not so much to receive any actual guidance.
Concern #3: Concerns regarding reburial
Instead of working with the community, UGA’s plans for the reburial were finalized before the public found out anything was happening. To add insult to injury, UGA had chosen a cemetery that was offensive to many black community members.
Concern #4: Intimidation and policing of faculty teaching activities
This concern focuses on two faculty members who were singled out and intimidated by UGA for pushing back against the official narrative. Remember Dr. Laurie Reitsema from concern #2 who was pushing for a community consultation? Well she was targeted by UGA spokesman Greg Trevor in an op-ed.
The Franklin College committee feels that this was inappropriate because Dr. Reitsema gave the advice for a community consultation in an official capacity according to the ethics of her discipline.
Dr. Scott Nesbit, Assistant Professor of History, was also intimidated just for doing his job.
There are also two other concerns the committee had that I unfortunately don’t have time to get into, again, go ahead and read the full report if you have time. I’ll link it in the description.
Concern #5: Treatment of issues concerning research
Concern #6: Institutional culture and its effects on academic freedom
The report also gave recommendations for how UGA should move forward from here. First, the faculty senate feels that UGA should apologize to presumed descendants and do a real community consultation on what to do with the remaining graves outside the boundaries of the Old Athens Cemetery. Because the report makes clear that there are probably more out there we haven’t found yet.
Next, they need to give a full apology to Dr. Reitsema and condemn her mistreatment. Finally, UGA should address the history and legacy of slavery at UGA.
You know, that all sounds pretty reasonable. In conclusion, the report states that:
“Instead of elevating itself as a national exemplar, UGA has damaged its reputation in ways that were eminently preventable… and will likely continue… if a new direction is not taken.”
The Faculty Senate voted 30-0 to accept the report. They’ll have to decide what to do with the report later; all this vote did was recognize that the committee did it’s job. But it definitely doesn’t look good for the University when your own faculty are basically accusing you of acting unethically and lying to the public.
The greater Athens community is also taking action and demanding the university address their history of slavery. A coalition of community groups, including the Athens NAACP and Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement, held a Recognition and Redress Town Hall on Wednesday and issued three demands:
1) Reparational Scholarships
2) Center on slavery funded
3) Wages of $15/hr for all full and part time workers, especially descendants of slaves who are underpaid at UGA.
I’m hopeful that all of this pressure, both from the community and from faculty, will lead to lasting change in the attitudes and behaviors of UGA administration. We’ll see what happens, and I’ll try to keep you informed. Thanks for watching.
OTHER VIDEO SOURCES
UGA dedicates memorial at Baldwin Hall