Sisyphus Redux

The University of Wisconsin spent $50,000 to remove a boulder because, nearly a century ago, a reporter referred to it using a racial slur. Is this justice or absurdity?

Around 12,000 years ago, glaciers from as far north as Canada deposited a large boulder on what is known today as Observatory Hill on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus. The rock, which is likely more than 2 billion years old, was only partially visible until winched out of the ground in 1925. Named after Thomas Crowder Chamberlin, a 19th-century geologist and former president of the university, Chamberlin Rock is a rare example of a pre-Cambrian era glacial erratic — a rock that took a long, chilly ride and was left behind when the ice melted. According to Professor Brad Singer of the UW–Madison Geoscience Department, “the rock has immense teaching and educational value in addition to its scientific importance and is used extensively throughout the department and coursework.”

Earlier this month, the University of Wisconsin spent approximately $50,000 to relocate this ancient boulder to a site off campus. Why? Because the Wisconsin Black Student Union (WBSU) and the Native American student organization Wunk Sheek called for the removal of what they deemed a “symbol of ongoing harm” and racial injustice. 

After reading this news, I was eager to learn more about the history of this 40-ton behemoth and how exactly it became a symbol of oppression. I discovered that this rock is not, either by design or by patronage, associated with white supremacy. It is not, as was the case for Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson Public Policy School, named after an identified or avowed racist. Nor is it a symbol of the institution itself, as was the Harvard Law School shield, which was based on the crest of a slaveholding family.

What then is the rock’s crime?

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