West Virginia University, and by extension, the Daily Athenaeum exist because of Indigenous lands. This land was purchased by the U.S. government over a century ago through violence-backed treaties and resold at a massive profit, according to recent reporting.
Last year, High Country News released their “Land-Grab Universities” investigation. It detailed for the first time the historic land transfer of the Morrill Land-Grant Act that gave states seed money from the sale of tribal lands to build public universities.
The law gave West Virginia 150,291 acres of land from across a dozen different states, mostly in the West. This land had been taken by treaties, some ratified and some not, and was bought at a fraction of its true value.
The federal government bought the land for $3,108. It was sold by the West Virginia legislature for $90,000.
The proceeds allowed the cash-strapped state government to finance and establish WVU in 1867. It was a small school then but with the support of the Morrill Act money and state funds, it became the billion-dollar university we know today.
Just 20 years after the first classes in Morgantown, the first edition of a plucky literary magazine called Athenaeum circulated on campus. This would later become the Daily Athenaeum.
Why do I share this?
Earlier this week, the DA published a submitted letter from an alumni about Christopher Columbus. The letter’s author argued that the colonization of America was inevitable and called Indigenous people “tough, violent human beings.”
The letter generated widespread outcry and outrage, in our audience and internally within my staff. It was a mistake to publish the piece.
After pressure from my staff, I decided to remove the article from our website and take down social media posts promoting it.
Many people still have questions about how this piece was published, why it was taken down and what we plan to do next. I will address all three.
The review process for this article involved myself and one other student in our newsroom, not the entire staff. At the end of the day, I’m the DA’s Editor-in-Chief and ultimately responsible for the content that we publish.
Insensitive, uninformed and nonsensical as it may have been, I decided the letter was worth publishing. In retrospect, we should have put it through additional fact checking and vetting before publication.
I took the piece down after extensive conversations with top editors at the paper who were not involved in the initial publishing process. They felt strongly that the piece should not have been published.
After conversations with all of our editors, I learned that a majority of them thought we should not have printed the piece and agreed with the decision to take it down.
While I am responsible for the content of the paper, there are over a dozen editors on our masthead.
It’s not immediately clear to the public what our process for publishing opinion pieces is. Many assumed that editors who were not involved in the publication process were.
I have since apologized to our editors for the confusion.
In the future, we plan to include more top editors in the editorial process for submitted opinion pieces. We also plan to be more transparent about our process and more thorough in vetting and fact checking submissions.
This does not mean that you will only read things in our pages that you agree with, but I assure you that these articles will be based in fact and will have gone through a rigorous editorial process.
After meeting with the editors and discussing this piece for over an hour Wednesday night, I thought back to the “Land-Grab Universities” investigation on my drive home.
I’d first heard about the story about a year ago. I did some reporting last winter on WVU’s history as a land grant institution financed by tribal lands but the story didn’t make it to publication.
Native Americans were forced off their land for pennies. As I drove home, I reflected on that reality.
That land indirectly gave us the opportunity to get an education. Without it, the DA would likely not exist.
As we move forward, I believe it’s important to listen to the voices that critique us.
Along with this letter from myself, we’re publishing several letters we received in response to the controversial one.
They are critical of the letter’s content and the very fact of its publication.
Please, continue to submit your opinions for consideration. I look forward to reading them.