AUSTIN, Texas -- University of Texas President Greg Fenves ordered the removal of statues of Robert E. Lee and other prominent Confederate figures from a main area of campus, saying such monuments have become "symbols of modern white supremacy and neo-Nazism."
Fenves announced the move late Sunday night as the work was about to begin, reports CBS Austin affiliate KEYE. The school also blocked off the area during the process, and the statues were expected to be gone by mid-morning Monday, a school spokesperson said.
Less than 30 people, both supporters and opponents of Fenves' order, congregated after midnight behind barricades near the statues. There was a heavy police presence and some arguments occurred between those gathered.
► Make it easy to keep up to date with more stories like this. Download the WFMY News 2 App now.
Mark Peterson, who identified himself as a University of Houston student, was seething at the removal of the statues.
"I hate the erasure of history and my people's history ... people of European descent who built this country," the 22-year-old said. "It burns me to my core."
Mike Lowe, an activist for the removal of Confederate statues in San Antonio, was driving to Dallas when he heard the statues were coming down, turned around and drove to campus. Lowe, 37, who is African-American, engaged in a brief but tense argument with a white male protester until police stepped in to separate them.
"They have no other reasons than 'you are erasing our history.' Their reasoning is flawed. These monuments represent white supremacy, and black lives haven't mattered in this county the same as a white man's matters," Lowe said.
The university moved a statue of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis from its perch near the campus clock tower to a the university's Dolph Briscoe Center for American History in 2015.
Fenves said in a statement that the statues of Lee, Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston, Confederate Postmaster General John Reagan and James Stephen Hogg "are now being removed from the Main Mall. The Lee, Johnston and Reagan statues will be added to the collection of the Briscoe Center for scholarly study. The statue of James Hogg, governor of Texas (1891-1895), will be considered for re-installation at another campus site."
The debate over public memorials for Confederate figures roared into national conversation last week after one person was killed in a clash between white supremacists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia.
"The University of Texas at Austin is a public educational and research institution, first and foremost," the Fenves statement continued. "The historical and cultural significance of the Confederate statues on our campus — and the connections that individuals have with them — are severely compromised by what they symbolize. Erected during the period of Jim Crow laws and segregation, the statues represent the subjugation of African Americans. That remains true today for white supremacists who use them to symbolize hatred and bigotry.
"The University of Texas at Austin has a duty to preserve and study history. But our duty also compels us to acknowledge that those parts of our history that run counter to the university's core values, the values of our state and the enduring values of our nation do not belong on pedestals in the heart of the Forty Acres.
"We do not choose our history, but we choose what we honor and celebrate on our campus."
© 2017 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.