We have previously followed controversies at leading universities where students have objected to reading works by white males (even as part of classic English literature courses). Now, students at the University of Pennsylvania removed a portrait of Shakespeare from a prominent location in the school’s English department because he is a white male. He was replaced by Audre Lorde, a black feminist and author who died in 1992.
The department chair observed that the students removed the portrait as “a way of affirming their commitment to a more inclusive mission for the English department.”
Here is what I fail to understand. Department Chair Jed Esty explained that the portrait was “delivered” to his office and said that the portrait of Lorde will remain in Shakespeare’s place until he and his colleagues can reach an agreement on what to do next. In a stereotype of the erosion of academic integrity and principles, Esty said that they would create a “working group” to help monitor the process.
Here is another possibility. You put the portrait back and discipline any students that damaged school property (which does not appear to be the case). Whatever the value of Lorde’s work, she is not the equal of Shakespeare as an influence on literature. You do not need a committee to explain that obvious fact. There is of course no problem is honoring Lorde for her own contributions but the concern among some in academia is that we are watching a comprehensive attack on classical literature and training. This small story hit a nerve for that reason.
Instead, the working group will discuss the “departmental mission in the current political climate” and “initiate an open and collaborative conversation among students, faculty, and employees in English to come up with ideas for that public space.”
Notably, the English Department voted a few years ago to replace the portrait. Why? I cannot think of a more meaningful image for any English department.