The exhibit outside Perkins Library was party-themed, a decade-by-decade tour of how students celebrated at Doane University.
But a pair of the two-tone photos included in the "Parties of the Past" display this spring revealed a history of racism at Doane, with men and women attending a campus-sponsored Halloween party in 1926 appearing to be wearing blackface.
"An all-Doane masquerade Halloween party was held Friday evening in the college gymnasium," read a blurb in the Lincoln Sunday Star on Oct. 31 of that year, under the heading "Doane Notes."
There was no caption accompanying the photo on display explaining what it depicted or when it was taken, nor were there any explanations that put it into context or indicated its display was educational in nature, a Doane official told the Journal Star on Thursday.
Last month, a student grew distressed by the image and took their concern to Melissa Gomis, director of the Perkins Library who had put the exhibit together from materials in the university's archive and displayed it in the public space on the Crete campus.
Shortly after her conversation with the student on April 19, library staff removed the two photos depicting students wearing blackface, Doane's student newspaper reported. The entire exhibit was shuttered a week later.
Doane President Jacque Carter, writing in an email to students and staff on Monday, apologized for the display of the photos.
"Blackface is hurtful and racist and has no place at our institution," Carter wrote. "Immediate action has been taken and an investigation has begun."
The immediate action, which included placing Gomis on administrative leave, has rankled some members of Doane's faculty, who said the move violated long-held principles of academic freedom and due process.
"Everyone agrees the blackface photos are offensive," said Chris Wentworth, a professor of physics and president of Doane's chapter of the American Association of University Professors.
A lot of students expressed the belief the photos should be taken down, Wentworth added, but the AAUP maintains "that simply being offended by educational material is not sufficient to remove the material from lessons, lectures or other things done in an educational environment."
Carter, responding to questions from the Journal Star in an email, said he was "unaware those particular photos existed," writing Doane will "carefully review material that may be in our archives."
Taking down the photos and investigating why and how they were selected for the exhibit isn't about ignoring history, Carter added.
"This is about providing context and education surrounding some of our history," he said. "My hope is that any such material would only be displayed in the future if it is put in appropriate context. Unfortunately, that did not occur in this situation."
Members of the faculty disagree, saying the administration was heavy-handed and circumvented academic freedom.
There is room for good-faith disagreements over the content of materials within a university library or archive, said Brian Pauwels, an associate professor of psychology and vice president of Doane's AAUP chapter.
Decisions of what is put on display, be it something that shows a positive side of history or a painful part of the past, is best left up to the discretion of the librarian, not administrators, he added.
"Librarians have to make these judgments thousands of times a year," he said.
Gomis made a judgment in putting the photos in the display and then made another judgment in responding to the concerns raised by a student.
"At that point, it should have been the end of it," Pauwels said.
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Instead, Gomis, who does not have tenure but works in a professor-of-practice capacity, was removed from campus while the administration looks into the display.
Gomis, through an intermediary, declined to comment on Thursday. No other details of the campus investigation are available.
The administration's actions have raised several concerns, according to Wentworth, which threaten to "destroy the environment of free inquiry" at Doane.
There's the removal of the photos, which are historical and serve an educational purpose, he said, as well as the removal of a librarian and archivist who was following professional standards in putting together an exhibit.
And the confusing and imprecise language regarding the faculty grievance procedure in the employee handbook has reopened old wounds between the faculty and administration that led to a group of professors calling for a vote of no confidence in Carter's leadership two years ago.
The campus AAUP is working on a statement of protest, Wentworth added.
Administrators see the situation differently.
Provost Paul Savory said the review of the materials is not akin to censorship, and the administration at Doane does not believe this situation is a question of academic freedom, adding the university takes "very seriously the obligation we have to allow staff to express themselves."
"But, on issues that are so important — such as race — we also have an obligation to provide context around material that can be hurtful," he told the Journal Star.
In his email to the campus community, Carter reaffirmed Doane's commitment to being an inclusive university that welcomes students, faculty and staff from "all backgrounds and walks of life."
He called the display of the historical photos "inconsistent" with Doane's values, and noted progress the university has made in areas of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Luis Sotelo, Doane's chief diversity officer, said gains in cultural competency, education and resources in recent years have led to an increase in awareness and reporting of racially or culturally insensitive words and actions on campus.
Sotelo added the exhibit outside the library will be another opportunity to continue those "tough conversations."
"We will ensure that learning and growth come from this incident," Sotelo said.
Faculty on Thursday, however, said the focus on the administration's actions toward Gomis and not on Doane's unsettled history of racism has made it more difficult to bring the campus together to talk about those issues.
"Many of us, including myself, did not realize there was such blatant racism demonstrated by Doane College students back in the 1920s, and now I know," Wentworth said. "Had it not been for that display, I would not have known, and I suspect a good part of this community would not have known."
There was an opportunity for a teachable moment regarding the use of blackface at Doane, where just 2 percent of students are black, said Marilyn Johnson Farr, a professor of education.
Was the photo put out to start a conversation? Perhaps it could have been used to raise the consciousness of students unaware of the history of blackface, but it also could have sent ugly signals to those unaware of the context.
The reaction also has caused concern among faculty in how they approach issues that may be deemed controversial, she added.
"It's a learning moment across campus if the structure is put in place for us to learn," Johnson Farr said, "but right now, that was several days ago and nothing has happened to create a public forum to learn from it."