GALLOWAY — A New Jersey college has become part of the national debate over removing statues of historical figures who owned slaves.

In an email sent to Stockton Unversity  students and staff, Provost and Vice-President for Academic Affairs Lori Vermeulen said the bust of the school's namesake was removed from its spot in the Richard E. Bjork Library. But she said the removal is only temporary and the bust be included in a new exhibit about Stockton coming to the library.

"As you are probably aware, Richard Stockton was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. What you may not realize is that he was also a slave owner. Further, he was a controversial figure in his time," Vermeulen wrote.

She said the school's mission to “develop engaged and effective citizens with a commitment to life-long learning and the capacity to adapt to change in a multi-cultural, interdependent world," presented an opportunity "for our students to learn about the facts surrounding Richard Stockton’s place in American history as well as in Stockton’s history."

University President Harvey Kesselman told The Press of Atlantic City  the discussion about the school's namesake has been ongoing for years. He says the timing of the removal is relevant in the wake of the recent violent protest in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Class of 1993 graduate Lora Hudicka told New Jersey 101.5 that during her time at Stockton the issue of his own slaves was not brought up by teachers or staff. "They just really wanted us to get an education, graduate and go off to work."

Hudicka believes that it was taken down to avoid the current controversy. "They probably don't want to pay a security guard to make sure it's okay. When (the controversy) blows over they'll probably put it right back up," she said.

She also thinks statues are "silly." Citing the Egyptian pyramids and statues of Julius Caesar as examples of historical figures that made mistakes, Hudicka said. Slavery was a "bad part of history but it happened. We're not celebrating it. we're not encouraging it but we're learning from it so it doesn't happen again."

Current student Samantha Kelly said that the issue of Stockton's ownership has been a topic of discussion on campus.

"It has ALWAYS been apparent and criticized among students/facility that the school was named after an individual who owned slaves. I would imagine as the school does for most things that they probably had a meeting with students and facility about a concern for it and they overall decided it was the best decision for the campus," Kelly said.

"They probably went through numerous steps to conclude this was the best decision for the school and for the feelings of the students on campus."

White nationalist protesters and counter-protesters gathered in Charlottesville after the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. Clashes. That rally — and the death of a woman allegedly killed by a white nationalist during the weekend's events — has prompted nationwide debate over statues of Confederates and other historical figures who owned slaves.

NJ Sen. Cory Booker said he would propose legislation to remove Confederate statues from the  National Statuary Hall Collection at the U.S. Capital building.

According to his biography, Stockton was born in Princeton in 1730 and was a member of the first graduating class at Princeton College (now University). He was a member of the Continental Congress, an unsuccessful candidate for governor and was elected Chief Justice of the New Jersey state Supreme Court. He declined to serve and chose to practice law instead.

Harry Hurley of New Jersey 101.5 sister station WPG Talk Radio called the decision to remove the bust "one of the most asinine decisions in American history."

"The radical fringe is redacting the history of America while we sit back and watch," Hurley wrote. "Dr. Harvey Kesselman (the school's president) is a good friend of mine. It pains me to oppose him. But, I simply can’t remain silent. This is an outrageous and irrational decision. Dr. Kesselman has stated that a backlash will occur. He’s absolutely right. Let the backlash begin."

A spokeswoman for Stockton said Kesselman was traveling on Friday and was unavailable for comment.

The university was originally named Richard Stockton State College when the school was created in 1969. It became a university in 2015.

Contact reporter Dan Alexander at Dan.Alexander@townsquaremedia.com.

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