In this region of world-class colleges and universities, Boston University is an underappreciated treasure. During my 16 years teaching there, I developed a high regard not only for BU’s faculty and students but also for the seriousness and bedrock integrity of the institution itself. Now I fear that BU may be losing its way.
In what can only be described as a bout of misguided zealotry, the university’s leadership has identified Rhett, BU’s mascot, as a problem requiring urgent action. A cartoon version of a Boston terrier, Rhett’s image appears all over campus. He is featured on bookstore memorabilia. At intermission during basketball or hockey games, a student dressed up as Rhett throws BU tchotchkes to kids in the stands.
University administrators have decided that Rhett is an offensive reminder of racism and sexism. In a letter to the BU community, President Robert Brown writes, Rhett “pays tribute to a fictional character associated with the Confederacy, slavery, and sexual assault,” an apparently recent discovery “that has prompted important conversations.” Upon further investigation, Brown discovered that the mascot’s name refers to the male protagonist in “Gone with the Wind.” In the BU context, he explains, Rhett is a play on words. “Since our school color is scarlet, it was a short leap for students — or perhaps a sports publicist — to link Rhett to Scarlett O’Hara.”
Given the undeniable fact that “the movie’s portrayal of the American Civil War, postwar reconstruction, and slavery is offensive,” the mascot, Rhett, his connection to the movie on a par with mine to Clark Gable, therefore becomes a symbol of racism. Brown is forming a committee to determine how to expunge this hitherto undiscovered blot on the university’s reputation. Rhett’s days are clearly numbered.
I do not know that firing Rhett will advance the cause of racial equality, whether at BU or beyond the confines of the campus. My guess is that it will evoke a backlash from alums who may be fond of Rhett but until now were oblivious to the mascot’s racist connotations.
But my real fear is this: Rhett-gate suggests that BU administrators are allowing the political passions of the moment to take precedence over the university’s mission of “educating students to be reflective, resourceful individuals ready to live, adapt, and lead in an interconnected world.” Given the world we live in, obstacles to accomplishing that mission are legion. Yet Rhett is not one of them. Nor will Rhett’s exile from campus make that mission any easier to pursue.
Racism is America’s Original Sin. That racism persists — even thrives — in our country today is deeply shameful. Its eradication rightly ranks as a political priority. And universities have a role in studying racism pursuant to its elimination. On that score, BU’s recent creation of a Center for Antiracist Research, headed by Ibram X. Kendi, a top-flight scholar, is an admirable initiative.
But leaders should take care not to confuse symbols with substance. Granted, some symbols have substantive connotations: The statues and monuments memorializing the Confederacy satisfy that criterion and are rightly being removed. But targeting an odd-looking canine mascot carries with it the risk of inadvertently trivializing and therefore undermining a worthy cause.
The campaign to ban Rhett is nonsense. To pursue it is to invite ridicule. A great university has more important priorities that demand its attention.
Andrew Bacevich is professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University.