Wendell Berry pulling his personal papers from UK

Writer protesting coal's influence

ctruman@herald-leader.comJune 23, 2010 

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry, perhaps Kentucky's best-known writer, is pulling many of his personal papers from the University of Kentucky's archives to protest the naming of Wildcat Coal Lodge.

Berry excoriated his alma matter in a Dec. 20, 2009, letter, saying the decision to name a new dorm for UK basketball players the Wildcat Coal Lodge "puts an end" to his association with the university.

"The University's president and board have solemnized an alliance with the coal industry, in return for a large monetary 'gift,' granting to the benefactors, in effect, a co-sponsorship of the University's basketball team," Berry wrote in the typewritten letter. "That — added to the 'Top 20' project and the president's exclusive 'focus' on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — puts an end to my willingness to be associated in any way officially with the University."

The Herald-Leader obtained the correspondence last week in response to a request under the Kentucky Open Records Act.

Berry, among the most revered of Kentucky writers and a former recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, told the university "it is now obviously wrong, unjust and unfair, for your space and work to be encumbered by a collection of papers that I no longer can consider donating to the University."

The papers, which measure 60 cubic feet in volume and would fill about 100 boxes, remain at UK while Berry negotiates their transfer to the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort. He said the papers include letters he has received over the years, drafts of various books and corrected proofs.

Berry, 75, said UK's push to become a "Top 20" research university has caused it to stray from its land-grant university obligation to address Kentucky's problems.

"The coal business came up, and that for me was just the last straw," Berry said Tuesday. "I don't think the University of Kentucky can be so ostentatiously friendly to the coal industry ... and still be a friend to me and the interests for which I have stood for the last 45 years. ... If they love the coal industry that much, I have to cancel my friendship."

In a statement, UK spokesman Jimmy Stanton said the university was disappointed by Berry's decision to pull his personal papers, particularly because UK has purchased a significant portion of his works, which are in the UK libraries archives' permanent collection.

"We do regret that our students and researchers who wish to study his life and works will now be unable to access all of his previously donated works in one archive that contains the papers of many of Kentucky's greatest writers," Stanton said.

UK President Lee T. Todd Jr. was made aware of Berry's letter, but UK archives director Deirdre Scaggs responded to Berry on behalf of the university in late January.

"Our commitment to you was demonstrated by our purchase of a significant portion of your collection," Scaggs wrote on Jan. 20. "... By your recent decision, UK Libraries suffers an irreplaceable loss, but it is the students and researchers who will now pay the price."

Owensboro businessman Billy Joe Miles, the interim chairman of UK's Board of Trustees, said he thinks the UK board did the right thing in its renaming of the lodge and that coal "can be used so we aren't held hostage by other countries in the world."

"I respect Mr. Berry, and if that's what he wants to do, he needs to give it (his collection of papers) to someone who shares his beliefs," Miles said.

A new $7 million Wildcat Coal Lodge was approved in October trustees in a 16-3 vote. The proposal for the lodge came from Joe Craft, head of Alliance Coal, who put together 20 other people called the Difference Makers to assemble the money.

The lodge will replace the Joe B. Hall Wildcat Lodge, which houses the men's basketball team and other students.

Ernie Yanarella, an outgoing faculty trustee who vigorously opposed the naming of Wildcat Coal Lodge, said that while Berry is correct in his objections to the lodge, the university has been working diligently to improve its general education courses, which include studies in the humanities and social sciences.

Yanarella said UK violated its own regulations in naming the building. Coal is not a purpose or function of the lodge, Yanarella said, and hence is included in the name for no reason "other than promotional considerations for the Kentucky coal industry."

In an essay published in 1987, The Loss of the University, Berry argued for a college education that would broaden a student's exposure to a number of disciplines rather than produce the narrow skills of career-minded transients with no sense of a homeland.

At a 2007 commencement address at Bellarmine University, Berry railed against "the great and the would-be-great 'research universities.' These gigantic institutions, increasingly formed upon the 'industrial model,' no longer make even the pretense of preparing their students for responsible membership in a family, a community, or a polity. ... The American civilization so ardently promoted by these institutions is to be a civilization entirely determined by technology, and not encumbered by any thought of what is good or worthy or neighborly or humane."

Berry received bachelor's and master's degrees at UK and later returned to the university for two separate stints of teaching. He and his wife now live on their farm, Lanes Landing, in Port Royal in northeastern Henry County.

Berry's writings, which include novels, essays and poems, resound with the themes of agrarian dignity, the importance of community and a connection to the nurturing nature of the rural landscape.

Berry said Tuesday that breaking with UK saddens him: "I have an enormous obligation to that university. I was a student there, a teacher there, they've honored me ... but it seems to me it's going in a direction I don't agree with."

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service