Conscience over big coal: Wendell Berry says no to his alma mater


Has the work of the university, over the last generation, increased or decreased literacy and knowledge of the classics? Has it increased or decreased the general understanding of the sciences? Has it increased or decreased pollution and soil erosion? Has it increased or decreased the ability and the willingness of public servants to tell the truth? Such questions are not, of course, precisely answerable.

Questions of influence never are. But they are askable, and the asking, should we choose to ask, would be a unifying and a shaping force.

— Wendell Berry, “The Loss of the University,” Home Economics, 1987

Author Wendell Berry has had it with the University of Kentucky.

Back in December, he severely criticized his alma mater for an October decision of the Board of Trustees to go forward with a $7 million athletic facility named Wildcat Coal Lodge. (Chief architect of the deal is Joseph W. Craft III, who’s the CEO of coal producer/marketer Alliance Resource Partners.) A prolific writer on the subject of environmental sensitivity, Berry couldn’t stand the friendly nature of UK’s relationship with Big Coal. So he decided the U’s library system need no longer be encumbered by their significant holding — a collection of approximately 100 boxes’ worth of his personal papers — the Lexington Herald-Leader reports.

He wrote to university officials:

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… 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.

[I]t 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 coal business came up, and that for me was just the last straw,” Berry told the Herald-Leader 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.

He now looks to move his papers out of UK’s special holdings and into the Kentucky Historical Society.

UK officials probably couldn’t say they didn’t see this coming. The quote in the superscription to this item, from 23 years ago, could be thought of as latent embroidery to Berry’s future published thoughts on coal. Here’s one from September 2006, in that typically incisive way of his:

Eastern Kentucky, in its natural endowments of timber and minerals, is the wealthiest region of our state, and it has now experienced more than a century of intense corporate “free enterprise,” with the result that it is more impoverished and has suffered more ecological damage than any other region. The worst inflictor of poverty and ecological damage has been the coal industry, which has taken from the region a wealth probably incalculable, and has imposed the highest and most burdening “costs of production” upon the land and the people. Many of these costs are, in the nature of things, not repayable. Some were paid by people now dead and beyond the reach of compensation. Some are scars on the land that will not be healed in any length of time imaginable by humans….

So ingrained is our state’s submissiveness to its exploiters that I recently heard one of our prominent politicians defend the destructive practices of the coal companies on the ground that we need the coal to “tide us over” to better sources of energy. He thus was offering the people and the region, which he represented and was entrusted to protect, as a sacrifice to what I assume he was thinking of as “the greater good” of the United States – and, only incidentally, of course, for the greater good of the coal corporations….

I would remind the objectors that we are not talking here about the preservation of the “American way of life.” We are talking about the preservation of life itself. And in this conversation, people of sense do not put secondary things ahead of primary things. That precious creatures (or resources, if you insist) that are infinitely renewable can be destroyed for the sake of a resource that to be used must be forever destroyed, is not just a freak of short-term accounting and the externalization of cost – it is an inversion of our sense of what is good. It is madness.

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3 Responses to "Conscience over big coal: Wendell Berry says no to his alma mater"
  1. As a friend of Wendell Berry's, and as an author, I honor this decision. It also raises questions for me. I am just days away from donating my papers to the West Virginia University library. WVU has not been so blatant as the recent action by UK with regard to the "Coal Lodge," but does have connections to the coal industry and its destruction of the Appalachian mountains. I would appreciate prayers as I reconsider this decision.

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  2. I hope you reach a decision that you feel comfortable with, Denise. And, people, if you haven't read Denise's novels, you want to.

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