Xavier Rotnofsky and Rohit Mandalapu just wanted to make people laugh this spring when they ran for president and vice president of the student government at the University of Texas at Austin.
They were writers for the Texas Travesty, the campus satirical newspaper that puts forth candidates every year. They had never served on student government. Their campaign really was a joke.
But they won.
“I think people just didn’t care about student government and found us to be really funny,” said Rotnofsky, whose e-mail signature now reads “Student Body President.”
“Somehow it just took off and here we are,” Mandalapu said.
On the campaign trail, they promised to bring a Chili’s restaurant to campus and cut back hours at libraries to leave more time for partying. They promised to increase transparency in student government by requiring everyone in student government to wear only cellophane.
Only one part of their platform was serious, or at least non-silly: They said they’d remove the campus statue of Jefferson Davis, best known as the president of the Confederacy during the Civil War.
“It’s been a running joke within the Travesty, about the absurdity of Confederate statues being so prominent on campus,” Rotnofsky said. “We knew that none of the other candidates would talk about that.”
Before their surprise victory turned them into official student leaders in March, the pair wrote a resolution in favor of removing the statue. The student government passed the resolution.
Every few years, students rally to remove the statue of Jefferson Davis from UT’s campus, arguing that it honors a man who not only fought for slavery but also committed treason by fighting his own country. This push might have similarly fizzled. But on June 17, Dylann Roof shot and killed nine parishioners at a historically black church in Charleston, S.C., sparking a backlash against symbols of the Confederacy.
Three days later, the new student government leaders had started an online petition calling on the new university president, Gregory L. Fenves, to remove the Davis statue. More than 3,600 students have signed the petition and others have rallied behind the cause on Twitter using the hashtag #NoDavisOnCampus.
Fenves met with Rotnofsky and Mandalapu and on June 23 announced that he would form a task force to help him figure out what to do about the Jefferson Davis statue.
“I deeply understand the concerns of our students who have raised this issue,” Fenves said in a statement. “I have been working closely with them to consider the range of options that recognize the impact this statue has on our students and the need for us to understand and learn from our history.”
The same day, university maintenance workers cleaned up after finding the statue vandalized with red graffiti: “Black lives matter,” it read. Mandalapu said that he and Rotnofsky had nothing to do with the defacing of the statue and don’t condone it.
“Administration has been very receptive and proactive with getting this task force together to come up with solutions and we are excited to work with them,” Mandalapu said.
The Davis statue is one of several statues of Confederate heroes on campus that were commissioned last century by George Washington Littlefield, a Civil War veteran who was a successful businessman and a UT regent.
Historians agree that the war was fought over slavery. But Littlefield was among a wave of Southerners who maintained, after the war, that they had fought for states’ rights, not slavery. The Littlefield Fountain, not far from the Davis statue, honors that fight and makes no mention of slavery, according to the Austin Chronicle.
Rotnofsky and Mandalapu said they’ve heard from critics who say they’re trying to wipe out history, but they say that’s not their aim. They said it’s because of history — because of what Jefferson Davis stood for and did — that they believe his statue belongs in a museum and not in a place of honor on campus.
“Statues aren’t meant to educate. Statues are meant to honor,” Rotnofsky said.
He noted that the statues of Davis and the other Confederates were erected in the early 1930s, when African Americans and other minorities were barred from the university. “Texas was in the clutches of Jim Crow,” he said. “We’ve come a long way from that. This is just a blot on the university’s past.”