University of Arkansas may move statue of William Fulbright, late senator and Bill Clinton's mentor

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The University of Arkansas’ chancellor has reportedly met with state lawmakers this week to hear their concerns about the potential relocation of a campus statue of late Sen. James William Fulbright – the one-time mentor to Bill Clinton whom the former president delivered a eulogy for at his funeral. 

The meeting Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz had Tuesday in Little Rock lasted about an hour, KHBS reported, and came weeks after he addressed a letter to the university system’s president recommending that the statue of Fulbright erected outside of the Fayetteville campus’s oldest building be moved elsewhere to “another appropriate campus location.” 

“You have to keep the history,” Steinmetz said to a group of lawmakers, some of whom are University of Arkansas graduates who have taken issue with moving the statue away from its current location, according to KHBS.

The J. William Fulbright statue on campus of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. (Replay Photos/Getty Images)
(Lance King/Replay Photos via Getty Images)

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“So what I’m really suggesting in recommending that to Dr. Bobbitt and the board is that we not diminish Senator Fulbright at all, but actually celebrate that history but to celebrate the complete story of the history not just things that we pick and choose to talk about,” he added. “That includes all the great things that he did at which are just tremendous in number but also the failures that he had historically as well.” 

Steinmetz said in his May 19 letter that the university had formed a committee to “evaluate Senator J. William Fulbright’s controversial and complex legacy on our campus” and “to explore whether the statue of Fulbright should continue to occupy a place in the center of campus.” 

He said critics of Fulbright point to the senator’s civil rights record, in particular his decision to sign the Southern Manifesto – a declaration opposing the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education – and resistance to the “Civil Rights Bills of 1957 and 1964, and vote against the Voting Rights Bill of 1965.” 

“On the other hand, we must also weigh his contributions as a president of the University and as a U.S. senator, including opposition to the Vietnam war and perhaps his greatest legacy, the Fulbright International Exchange Program, likely the most prestigious, far-reaching and important exchange program in the world,” Steinmetz said. 

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The chancellor also said “some would prefer that the university completely remove the statue in an attempt to further distance the campus from Senator Fulbright,” while “others suggest that we move the statue from its current location in order to reduce the discomfort that some students feel from having to pass by it when entering and exiting Old Main.” 

Before he became president, when Clinton was a student at Georgetown University, he worked as an intern for Fulbright, who at the time was leading the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. 

“We come to celebrate and give thanks for the remarkable life of J. William Fulbright, a life that changed our country and our world forever and for the better,” Clinton had said when delivering Fulbright’s eulogy in 1995. “In the work he did, the words he spoke, and the life he lived, Bill Fulbright stood against the 20th century’s most destructive forces and fought to advance its brightest hopes.” 

Clinton also lauded the Fulbright Scholarship Program as a “perfect example of Bill Fulbright’s faith, different kinds of people learning side by side, building what he called ‘a capacity for empathy, a distaste for killing other men, and an inclination for peace.’” 

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In his letter, Steinmetz told university system president Donald Bobbitt that he is making a formal request to relocate the statue to an undetermined on-campus location “where our campus community and visitors can go to see and hear the entire story of Fulbright.” 

“Ultimately, the goal and desire is to create a healthy dialogue, to minimize hurt feelings, and challenge false dichotomies – that you are either against Fulbright … or else you are a racist,” Steinmetz said. “It is just more complicated than that.”

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