Texas A&M University employees covered the campus statue of Lawrence Sullivan Ross with a tarp and fenced it off Wednesday morning after discovering it had been vandalized with graffiti overnight.

The word “racist” and the acronyms BLM and ACAB had been painted in red at the base of the statue in the university’s Academic Plaza. There also was red paint on the face and body of the statue along with a rainbow-colored wig.

Texas A&M University President Michael K. Young issued a statement Wednesday morning regarding the matter: “We became aware of the incident this morning and have immediately begun to engage experts to assess damage to the statue. We ask our Aggie community for peaceful discourse.”

Initially, A&M employees covered the statue with a tarp, but later added another and a small fence, then fenced in a larger area around the statue.

Texas A&M police said they have started a criminal investigation into the statue’s vandalizing, and said there are cameras in the area. The crime is classified as a state jail felony since the marking was made on a public monument at an institution of higher education. A state jail felony is punishable up to two years in a state jail and up to $10,000 in fines.

An A&M spokesperson said Wednesday that the University Art Galleries are tasked with maintaining the statues and memorials on campus, and employees are assessing the statue’s damages and will present a plan going forward.

Black Lives Matter B/CS said on Facebook Wednesday that no one with the organization had anything to do with the vandalizing of the statue.

Last week, petitions began circulating arguing for and against the removal of the statue, the oldest on A&M’s campus. As of Wednesday evening, each petition had just under 20,000 signatures. Several Confederate monuments have been taken down around the country following racial tensions sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Ross was a Confederate general who later served as governor of Texas before becoming A&M’s president, where he served from 1891 until his death in 1898. He is credited with saving the struggling university in its early years, boosting enrollment and securing additional funding to improve infrastructure. The statue was dedicated in 1918 in front of the Academic Building. A&M students have traditionally placed pennies on the base of the statue for good luck before taking exams.

Toriah Taylor, who served as president of the A&M NAACP chapter this year and graduated in May, said she doesn’t support the vandalizing of the statue but is in favor of removing it.

“I do think it’s time for it to go,” Taylor said of the statue. “I believe it’s time for A&M to transition and move forward with the changing times.”

In August 2017, Young issued a statement about the statue after the University of Texas removed Confederate statues from its campus: “Lawrence Sullivan ‘Sul’ Ross is honored on our campus as a former president of the school. Without Sul Ross, neither Texas A&M University nor Prairie View A&M University would likely exist today. He saved our school and Prairie View through his consistent advocacy in the face of those who persistently wanted to close us down.”

Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp also issued a statement at the time, saying, “Anyone who knows the true history of Lawrence Sullivan Ross would never ask his statue to be removed,” Sharp said.

The statue was also vandalized with graffiti in 2018.

A&M’s Student Senate is sending a survey to current students of the College Station campus, faculty and recent graduates Thursday morning to gauge opinions on the statue. A report from this survey will be compiled and presented to the full Senate at a meeting on July 8.

“While we have seen petitions advocating for multiple different courses of action, we want to ensure that no voice is left out or unheard simply because it is unseen,” said Zach McCue, speaker of the Student Senate. “As a Student Senate, we represent the student voice, so all options raised are being considered and individual senators are working on various ideas.”

A march and protest called the “Bye Bye Sully Ross Protest” has been scheduled for Saturday, starting at the Administration Building at 2 p.m. and going to the Academic Plaza. According to the Facebook event page, it is hosted by student groups including Texas Aggie Democrats and Young Democratic Socialists of America at Texas A&M University.

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