The conversation started with one of the participants saying that former Oregon State University President Benjamin Lee Arnold’s service in the Confederate Army had pretty clear implications, even if no documentation that he held white supremacist views exists.
“I think it’s pretty clear Arnold was willing to die to uphold slavery,” said Andrea Haverkamp, a second-year doctoral student in environmental engineering.
The conversation that followed held disagreements, but no personal attacks. There was emotion, but no vitriol or shouting. Participants generally listened silently and attentively as others spoke. There was little small talk.
The facilitated discussion was one of about ten at a university-sponsored discussion session Wednesday night that discussed Arnold’s life, legacy and whether a campus building named for him should be renamed.
The event was attended by more than 70 people and consisted of more than an hour of information about Arnold’s life and the process the university is following to consider renaming Arnold Dining Center and three other campus buildings possibly named for racists: Avery Lodge, Benton Hall and Gill Coliseum.
Haverkamp said Arnold's move to Oregon after the Civil War also was suggestive, since state law at the time barred black people from even entering the state.
Justin Nielsen, a senior in philosophy, said to students of color, it’s not a secret what serving in the Confederacy meant.
“He had an option not to serve,” Nielsen said.
Nielsen said in his time at OSU he’s seen open racism on campus, including fliers for white nationalist organizations and racist stickers placed on campus.
A Corvallis resident and OSU alumnus at the table said since there wasn’t documentation of Arnold holding racist views, the students seemed to be holding Arnold guilty for just being from the South at that time.
“He came here as president at a critical time in its life and he did a good job, that’s not in dispute,” the alumnus said.
Later, he added that he thought the name of the dining center should not change because he doesn’t want to see culture and history erased.
“I think from his time here, he served (then) Corvallis College well, and he deserves to be honored,” the alumnus said.
Nielsen, however, said just serving in the Confederacy was evidence Arnold was overtly upholding racism.
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“It seems to me there was good reason, after the South lost, to not express his views,” Nielsen said.
“He never denounced his service in the Confderate Army or his studies of slavery,” said Haverkamp.
Owen Hatch, a sophomore in political science, pointed to Arnold earning a credential in the study of domestic slavery before the Civil War as another piece of evidence of his views.
“You go to college to further your career, and he decided to study slavery,” Hatch said.
Nielsen said in the conversation that last year he was part of a group of students to protest Arnold Dining Center’s name and the other building names. He asked the group to imagine what it would feel like for a person of color to have to walk by the dining center.
“Racism is (at OSU) and it’s explicit and to honor Arnold over students who are here now. ... it would say we value him over the students who feel that he fought to oppress and enslave them.”
As the discussion wound down, Haverkamp said she hopes that in 50 years if anyone has a problem with a name chosen to replace Arnold or any of the other buildings, or if new evidence comes to light about another building namesake’s history that people don’t like, that the people then change those names.
Nielsen, who is in his last term at OSU, added that seeing younger students like Hatch in the conversation made him feel hopeful.
“I’m glad to see other undergraduates who care about this and are willing to take this up,” Nielsen said.
Each discussion group had a facilitator and a note-taker; notes from the meeting will be submitted to Ed Ray, OSU's president, to use in making his decision on renaming buildings, which is expected in late November or early December.
Discussions on the other three building names are scheduled for next week:
• The Avery Lodge discussion is set for 5:30 p.m. Oct. 16.
• The Benton Hall discussion is set for 5:30 p.m. Oct. 17.
• The Gill Coliseum discussion is set for 5:30 p.m. Oct. 19.