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“The history of our own universities is an interesting, important topic. I think university administrators should ensure that professional historians have a role in presenting the histories of their own universities.”

Tom Russell

Academic papers often provide important information for those in academia. That part is expected.

But when studies and papers seep outside the walls of universities and beyond academic publications and journals, that’s when they can make a difference to everyday people. A recent paper by University of Denver Sturm College of Law Professor Tom Russell is doing just that, stirring up a Texas-sized brouhaha in the Lone Star State.

Russell, who teaches law and holds a doctoral degree in history, began studying issues of race and segregation at the University of Texas when he was a law professor at the school’s Austin campus in the 1990s. He continued his research over the past decade and this year published a paper titled “‘Keep the Negroes Out of Most Classes Where There Are a Large Number of Girls’: The Unseen Power of the Ku Klux Klan and Standardized Testing at The University of Texas, 1899-1999.”

Appearing first on academic sites, the paper revealed that a dormitory at the University of Texas law school is named in honor of a long-dead professor, William Stewart Simkins, who was an unapologetic and active member of the Ku Klux Klan in the early part of the 20th century. Simkins, the study reports, preached on campus about the virtues of the Klan and bragged of night rides with the terrorist organization and of beating an African-American with a barrel stave.

News of a dorm named for a Klansman spread quickly from academic sites to mainstream news organizations, and Russell found himself quoted in newspapers across Texas, on CNN.com and in The Wall Street Journal, as well as in the Chronicle of Higher Education, television news broadcasts and blogs too numerous to count. His paper led to the creation of a 21-member panel at the University of Texas that studied the issue and held two well-attended public forums while considering renaming the dorm.

On July 15, the University of Texas Board of Regents voted unanimously to remove Simkins’ name from the dorm and held a media event to take down the sign that bore his name.

For Russell, the attention has drawn some criticism—including some not-so-veiled threats on at least one blog—and invited scrutiny of his work. But the professor says he is happy to have sparked some thought and debate. Getting scholars engaged in a public discussion is something Russell says universities should encourage.

“My legal history paper has generated an enormous conversation. Consequently my work is undergoing considerable scrutiny, which I am very happy to receive,” Russell says. “The Internet has of course played a key role in focusing attention on my research. The paper is available on the Web to anyone who wants to read and criticize it. The conversation about race, law, and history has taken place in meetings, in the news, and through social networking [sites] such as Twitter and Facebook. Smart universities that do not want their faculty’s work to drop unnoticed into the sea like a pebble should support their faculty by promoting their scholarship, and the authors need to take very active roles.”

The full text of Russell’s paper is online for anyone to download and includes detailed examples of Simkins’ involvement in the Ku Klux Klan.

Russell says some people objected to renaming the dorm because it could lead to a slippery slope. Should an institution remove the names of Confederate Civil War participants, since they fought for slave states? Should the names of some of the country’s founders who owned slaves, such as Thomas Jefferson, be banished from public buildings? Russell says there is a difference between those who lived within the laws of their times, no matter how odious those laws must have been, and those who acted illegally and dishonorably.

“I want people to understand that Professor Simkins was a criminal and a terrorist. This separates him from Confederate soldiers who fought with honor; slaveholders who had the support of law and the constitution; and even garden-variety racists who may have had pernicious views but who acted within the law,” Russell says. “Why anyone would argue that UT should continue to honor a Klan terrorist is beyond me.”

Ultimately, the University of Texas chose not to honor Simkins.

At the board meeting, Regent Prentice Gary said, “I suspect there are numerous symbols of various types rooted in racial and ethnic hatred that dishonor university campuses and other institutions across America where the negative history of the symbol is not known. The difference is that we acquired specific knowledge of this situation. I believe we acted appropriately and further, on a positive note, took advantage of this opportunity to restate the university’s position regarding the importance of diversity and inclusiveness.”

Russell says he hopes those who see the impact one academic paper can have and the amount of intelligent discussion it can stir will choose to start looking at the history all around them. There is history in everyday surroundings, he says, and it’s just waiting to be examined and shared.

“I hope that people will think more about the history of the institutions in which we work and learn,” he says. “The history of our own universities is an interesting, important topic. I think university administrators should ensure that professional historians have a role in presenting the histories of their own universities.”

On July 16, a day after the final decision to rename the dorm Creekside Residence Hall, CNN’s daily online column naming the day’s “Most Intriguing People” selected Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, South African president Nelson Mandela, and Tom Russell.

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