Covering Columbus: Campus Leaders Respond to Mural Controversy

Author: O'Neil, Alison


In a move that has since ignited a social media firestorm, the Office of the President announced on Jan. 20 that it intends to cover the Main Building’s historic but controversial Columbus murals.

“Just to go back in time a little bit, this has been a topic of conversation for about 20 years,” Dennis Brown, Assistant Vice President for News and Media Relations, told Scholastic. Brown added that university president Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., in response to “concerns” voiced by students and alumni, has “reflected on it, done some research and did feel that announcing [their decision] at the beginning of Walk the Walk Week and the Martin Luther King anniversary was an appropriate time as it is part and parcel of the university’s efforts to be more inclusive.”

The Native American Student Association of Notre Dame (NASAND) has expressed support, stating on its Facebook page that the covering of the murals represents “a good step towards acknowledging the full humanity of those Native people who have come before us.”

Iris Outlaw, director of Multicultural Student Programs and Services, also viewed the administration’s decision positively. Outlaw discussed the murals in the context of the history between Notre Dame and the local Native American group, the Pokagon Potawatomi, as well as the university’s involvement with other elements of Native culture. Outlaw described feeling “happy” and “surprised” by the administration’s seemingly sudden decision. “If I was a cartoon character, my jaw would’ve hit my desk ... But I was really pleased, on a lot of different levels.”

Campus conservatives, however, have opposed the administration’s decision on both secular and religious grounds. Grant Strobl, law student and national chairman of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), was one student to speak out. As reported on YAF’s website, Strobl denounced the decision as an attempt to “coddle” students. “If we adopt the standard of judging previous generations by current standards, we may reach a point where there are no longer accomplishments to celebrate.” YAF is currently circulating a petition to uncover the murals; as of Feb. 4, the petition had amassed over 2,000 signatures.

Brown pointed out that although the administration will cover the original murals, replicas of the murals will be placed in a new location within the Main Building. According to Brown, they will be placed in an “appropriate spot,” more conducive to thoughtful contemplation as opposed to the casual viewing that might take place during a typical football weekend. He added, “Rather than covering up history, we’re going to reveal more of it, through these murals.”