SLU president defends decision to erect statue honoring Occupy-Saint Louis University Protests

Fred P. Pestello makes brief comments as he is introduced as the new president of Saint Louis University in St. Louis on July 1, 2014. Pestello is Saint Louis University's first permanent lay president in the school's 196-year history. Pestello comes to St. Louis from LeMoyne College in Syracuse, where he held the position of president. UPI/David Broom

St. Louis University President Fred Pestello defended his decision-making against critics who have suggested the university is promoting anti-police actions or kowtowing to the demands of Ferguson protesters.

“Those reports are just wrong,” Pestello said in a statement released Thursday.

At issue is the university’s plan to erect a sculpture that would capture the spirit of last fall’s nearly weeklong live-in protest, known as Occupy SLU.

The event became a spectacle as students and social justice groups set up tents and camped near the university’s clock tower.

The protest was an outgrowth of the larger demonstrations going on in the St. Louis area following multiple fatal police shootings of young black men.

After six days, Pestello negotiated a 13-point agreement with three groups that helped organize the protest — Tribe X, the Black Student Alliance and the Metro St. Louis Coalition for Inclusion and Equality.

The agreement, now known as the Clock Tower Accords, marked the end of the Occupy SLU protest.

The agreement sparked a strong backlash on conservative websites, social media and with some alumni. Among the most contentious items on the list was the artwork.

One website said the university was in the process of building a “Monument to Anti-Cop ‘Occupy’ Protest.”

Pestello’s statement addressed what he called “considerable misinformation and confusion regarding this artwork.”

“Contrary to some reports, it was never our intention to — nor will we — commission artwork that would be anti-police or would honor the Ferguson protesters,” Pestello said. “What we envisioned with the artwork was a way to honor our shared Jesuit values that promote inclusion rather than division.”

Pestello cited the university’s civil rights history as the first historically white institution in a former slave state to formally admit black students.

In addition to the criticism over the sculpture, some alumni told the St. Louis Business Journal they would withhold donations to the university.

One criticism is that Pestello sided with protesters without speaking to alumni.

Additionally, an online petition has begun circulating suggesting that Pestello “set a dangerous precedent” by negotiating with protesters, some of whom are not students.

For his part, Pestello has said he’s proud of the way the negotiations were handled. He’s also received accolades from a number of students and faculty and from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who cited in a letter in October Pestello’s leadership as “nothing short of exemplary” in handling the Occupy SLU protest.

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