What parts of their uncomfortable associations should universities remember, and how? Around the world, institutions of higher learning are confronting what to do with symbols of their ties to slavery, colonialism, racism, and other projects antithetical to their values. For years, Berkeley Law has faced protests for its employment of Professor John Yoo, a principal author of the “Torture Memos” of the Bush Administration. The school’s exhibit of paintings by Fernando Botero of prisoner abuse by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib has communicated an institutional rebuke to the decision of the United States to rewrite the foundational norms of the rule of law in the pursuit of national security after 9/11.
However, the school is considering removing the paintings, which raises questions of memory heuristics: why the paintings are there at all, what they communicate about the past, and whether the past is worthy of commemoration. The Berkeley case offers insights into how and why debates about symbolic representations are contested moments aimed to shape institutional identity and values.