Dear University community,
Today, with the responsibility and authority granted me as Chancellor, I am announcing my decision to remove the name of Fredric March from the Oshkosh Campus theatre and rename the space the Theatre Arts Center.
This is one more action we take to better reflect UWO’s commitment to making the institution a more just, inclusive and equitable place where everyone is unhindered in their experiences and journeys.
In the early 1970s, UW Oshkosh—then Wisconsin State University-Oshkosh—decided to name the institution’s newly constructed theatre after actor Fredric March, born Ernest Frederick McIntyre Bickel in southeastern Wisconsin. A graduate of UW-Madison, Bickel took the stage name Fredric March and earned international acclaim as an Academy Award winning film actor. The WSU-Oshkosh theatre naming acknowledged his state roots and professional success.
As many of you may know, two years ago, in the wake of violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, UW-Madison students, faculty, staff and other social justice advocates called upon their university to remove March’s name, and that of UW-Madison alumnus Porter Butts, from a small theatre and another space within that institution’s Memorial Union. A painful revelation to many, March and Butts belonged to a UW-Madison interfraternity society known as the “Ku Klux Klan” while they were students in the 1920s. UW-Madison charged a task force to review the matter. A resultant report offered context and broader recommendations. Ultimately, Memorial Union leaders opted to remove both names. I encourage you to read Chancellor Becky Blank’s April 2018 thoughts and decisions on the issue and the relevant report here: https://chancellor.wisc.edu/blog/confronting-our-campus-history/.
As UW-Madison investigated the matter, I also received a demand from UWO students and advocates to remove March’s name from the Oshkosh Campus theatre. In 2019, I asked former Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Support of Inclusive Excellence Dr. Sylvia Carey-Butler to lead an effort to review UW-Madison’s findings and engage our campus communities in conversation. We gathered additional background, hosted a few forums, listened to and surveyed students, collected feedback and considered next steps.
There is no evidence to show that the UW-Madison group March belonged to was linked to the national movement of the Ku Klux Klan in its time. Furthermore, biographers and some media accounts have documented a streak of social justice later in March’s life. Leveraging his celebrity and talents, he spoke out against the U.S. House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee, which targeted Hollywood actors among other people, and allied with civil rights champions such as the NAACP.
Yet, there remains the troubling fact of March’s college interfraternal affiliation. The UW-Madison task force concluded that the founders of the group March belonged to named their society to signal “an identification—or, at the very least, no meaningful discomfort—with the widely known violent actions of the Reconstruction-era Klan as it was remembered, celebrated, and given new cultural and institutional life in the early twentieth century.”
After the UW-Madison revelation, and before this turbulent 2020’s arrival, I heard shock and pain from UWO community members and stakeholders urging the administration to remove March’s name from the Oshkosh campus theatre. I have since heard from additional students of color, colleagues, alumni and other advocates supporting that change. I have spent a lot of time thinking about their perspectives, experiences and call to action as I have considered Fredric March’s history, my own privilege and the unrest and anguish many people are living through right now. As this year alone has reminded us, systemic racism continues to shatter our communities, country and world, exacting a particularly devastating toll on people of color.
I no longer possess—and this institution should reject—the privilege of nuancing explanations as to how a person even tangentially affiliated with an organization founded on hate has his name honorifically posted on a public building. Letting the Oshkosh Campus theatre’s name stand would also permanently overshadow and discount the educational and artistic virtuosity we work so hard to nurture within and beyond its walls. The excellence is evident, now more than ever.
This summer, the UWO Theatre Department and recent graduate Bryan Carter earned prestigious honors from the National Committee of the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF).
A UWO political science graduate in May, Carter received an Outstanding Performance by an Actor award for his fall 2019 portrayal of Nat Turner in Nat Turner in Jerusalem. The Theatre Department also earned the Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Award, an honor given for “programs in higher education using theatrical production to promote long-term societal impact through an artistic, empathetic exploration of our complex cultural and physical world, and advocates for justice on campus and throughout the world.”
These are the accolades, transformative educational experiences and examples of courageous artistry and expression that our Theatre Department and UWO must continue to be known for. Let’s allow nothing to diminish their brilliance.
Chancellor Andy Leavitt
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(NOTE: This message was originally shared with the UWO student, faculty and staff community via email on August 18, 2020).