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In Search of Skeletons

In Search of Skeletons
November 27, 2006

Brown University’s October report elucidating the institution’s early ties to slavery has stepped up the pressure on other colleges to delve deeply into their own pasts and fully acknowledge their institutional links to slavery, Nazi Germany and other disgraced ideas.

Colleges are accustomed to taking more contemporary moral stances, whether by divesting from Sudan or " kicking Coke” to protest alleged labor and environmental practices. But a new model for social responsibility -- based on a careful look at the past -- has gained a foothold at the nation’s elite colleges.

Following the release of Brown’s report, Alfred L. Brophy, author of Reparations: Pro and Con ( Oxford, 2006) and a law professor at the University of Alabama, predicted that other Ivies would quickly follow suit: First to enter the arena, Brophy predicted, would be Yale University, where graduate students initiated their own inquiry into institutional ties to slavery in 2001, determining, among other things, that many of Yale's residential colleges had been named for slave owners and pro-slavery leaders. Harvard University, with its famous history faculty and ties both to slavery and the anti-slavery movement, would follow closely, with Princeton University, the Ivy that in the era before desegregation catered to Southerners much more so than its New England peers, not far behind.

So far, none of these institutions have publicly announced a plan to appoint a commission to pursue a similar inquiry as Brown’s. At Princeton, research by the university archivist has unearthed no evidence of an institutional connection to slavery upon which to base an inquiry, said Cass Cliatt, a university spokeswoman. Meanwhile, at Yale, ongoing studies at the university’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition continually examine the role slavery played in Yale’s past, a university representative said.

At Brown, President Ruth J. Simmons appointed a commission three years ago and that panel produced the 107-page report outlining the university’s early ties to the slave trade and making recommendations to offer redress in the present – among them creating a memorial, rewriting the official history of Brown, establishing a center for the study of slavery and justice, stepping up recruitment efforts for minorities and working to improve K-12 schools.

Brown is not alone in its dredging of history. A group of students, faculty and administrators at Colgate University was formed in March to study allegations that a late president , George B. Cutten, the namesake for a campus building, was a eugenicist, while the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill launched a virtual museum examining its history, slavery and all, in October. Brophy’s own University of Alabama issued an apology for its connections to slavery in 2004. Many southern universities have also used anniversaries of desegregation or the graduations of their first black students to explore their civil rights era history.

Meanwhile, representatives at several elite colleges say they have studied their skeletons in their own way and haven’t tried to hide them. The spokesman for Harvard University did not offer a response to several requests for comment, but Michael Armini, spokesman for Harvard’s Law School, said the university has been honest about the tainted origins of the school’s Isaac Royall chair, made possible by proceeds from an Antiguan slave plantation. “My sense is that as long as institutions are upfront and honest, people will make decisions with the right amount of information,” Armini said.

Among the recommendations made in the Brown report, pointed out Yale’s assistant director of public affairs, Dorie Baker, was to establish a center for the study of slavery. At Yale, such a center has been in existence to grapple with these sorts of questions since 1998.

But some have argued that many elite colleges looked to as leaders in higher education are stopping short of a full inquiry into past wrongs, shirking an opportunity for scholarly investigation consistent with the mission of higher education.

Dismissive attitudes don't help, said Brophy: "It isn't us; it's somebody else," he quotes the sentiment. "It is that arrogance in the absence of any kind of knowledge.”

"This is not a question of a 'yes' or 'no' relationship to the institution of slavery.  For an academic institution, it ought to be a process of understanding the multiple and complex ways that institutions benefited from and contributed to -- as well as opposed -- slavery," said Brophy.

Brophy added, however, that any inquiry needs to originate from the students and faculty within a university – a sentiment echoed in a Cavalier Daily account of an April forum at the University of Virginia, where students and faculty members discussed whether the institution should apologize for its involvement in slavery, including founder Thomas Jefferson’s identity as a slaveholder.

The director of Brown’s inquiry said that while the committee was aware the institution might be looked to as a model, being the first university to undertake such a systematic study of its impure origins, every college has to grapple with the past on its own terms. “Any institution in the country, any institution with the vintage of Brown, is going to have a dense web of entanglements with slavery and the slave trade,” said James Campbell, chair of Brown’s Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice and an associate professor of American studies, Africana studies and history. “It’s not for me to prescribe to other institutions what to do. If I have a hope, it would be that other people will read the report and find it inviting, not that they’ll find it as somehow dictating to them what they need to do themselves.”

Nazi Ties

While the slavery debate roils on, one scholar has employed Brown’s example more broadly in an attempt to compel top universities to look beyond slavery to their ties to twentieth-century oppression -- in particular, the rise of Nazism.

In an October Columbia Spectator opinion piece, Rafael Medoff, director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, cited research by Stephen H. Norwood, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, outlining ways in which elite institutions, including Columbia and Harvard, “shamefully attempted to build friendly relations with the Hitler regime” in the 1930s. “Brown University, in Rhode Island, is preparing to take steps to atone for its connections to slavery. In the same spirit, it is time for Columbia University to finally right a grievous wrong,” Medoff wrote.

Norwood initially presented a paper on Harvard-specific research at a Boston conference in 2004, arguing that the university invited Nazi leaders to high-profile social events on campus and sent a delegate to a 1936 festival celebrating the anniversary of a German institution, the University of Heidelberg. The presence of Western higher education leaders was used for propaganda purposes by the Nazi government, Norwood said.

More recently, Norwood, who is writing a book about American higher education’s response to Nazism, released research on Columbia’s ties. He cast particular fault on President Nicholas Murray Butler’s defense of a decision to host a Nazi ambassador, Hans Luther, in 1933 (Butler called Luther “honored and well-bred,” Norwood said), and the wrongful expulsion of a student, Robert Burke, for protesting the decision to send a delegate to the Heidelberg Festival.

In addition, Norwood noted that both President Butler and Harvard’s president, James Bryant Conant, “were supporters of an informal Jewish quota for admitting students, and took steps to keep the percentage of Jewish students lower than it should have been.” Barriers for refugees seeking scholarly homes in American higher education were also kept high, Norwood said.

Butler and Conant's actions "legitimized" the Nazi government at a time when Jewish professors were being driven out of faculty positions and Jews were being savagely beaten and herded into concentration camps, Norwood said.

“Brown University has set a very important moral example in facing up to its past,” said Medoff, who added that he had not heard any response from Columbia students or administrators since the publication of the Spectator opinion piece. “Columbia has different skeletons in its closet, but it’s time that Columbia too faces its past.”

Norwood argued that universities attempt to eschew the seriousness of the charges his research unearths, referencing his disappointment with Harvard’s 2004 failure to even send a representative to the Boston conference where his paper, “Harvard University and the Hitler Regime, 1933-1937,” was presented, and a Crimson opinion piece criticizing his research as opportunistic for singling out Harvard for behaviors “not uncommon to the interwar period.” The editorial was followed with a letter-to-the-editor faulting the editorial board for excusing the findings with an “Everyone was doing it” attitude and a student-written opinion piece arguing that Harvard should offer an apology.

“It’s odd that the people in office today are so intent on sweeping everything under the carpet,” said Norwood. His book will be about all of higher education, but focuses largely on elite institutions because they yield greater influence, he explained. “Universities should be committed to the search for truth; that’s the mission of the scholar.”

But both Harvard and Columbia have questioned Norwood’s research, generally attacking not the facts themselves but their context. In a 2004 release, Harvard argues that the reception of Hitler’s press officer, Ernst Hanfstaengl, for his 25th reunion in 1934, was consistent with the university’s tradition of inviting all members of a class to reunions. Furthermore, the university argued that Hanfstaengl’s reception was cold, that Harvard refused donations from Hanfstaengl on two separate occasions and that the decision to send a delegate to Heidelberg was done to promote communication among scholars.

Columbia’s provost Alan Brinkley, also a professor of history, called Norwood’s research an “extravagant interpretation of Columbia's modest interactions with Germany in the 1930s” in a statement earlier this month. “In retrospect, one might wish that no one who believed in democratic values would have had any connection with Germany after Hitler's accession to power. But in fact, American interactions with Nazi Germany -- financial, commercial, cultural, academic, and political -- were extensive throughout the 1930s and even into the first months of World War II. If the events that Professor Norwood describes are examples of ‘collaboration,’ then the collaborators include many thousands of leaders and citizens of the United States, Britain, and many other nations,” said Brinkley. He added that Butler created the first endowed chair in Jewish history at a secular university in the Western world.

Michael Rosenthal, a professor of English at Columbia and author of a new biography on President Butler, Nicholas Miraculous: The Amazing Career of the Redoubtable Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler ( Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006), also said that Burke was expelled not for the anti-Nazi substance of his protest, but for the fact of the disturbance: “Butler was not necessarily one of those who appreciated students’ expressions of views. Butler was an autocratic guy,” said Rosenthal, who added that Butler was guilty of, at most, blindness, in his failure to see the political agenda behind the Heidelberg Festival. Butler “had nothing good to say about Nazism,” said Rosenthal, who called Norwood's research "trivial in the extreme."

“It’s perfectly upfront that Butler did this. That’s clear. That’s historical record. The point is, ‘What do you make of this?’ The accusation is that Butler was complicit in some way with Nazi Germany. That is absurd. If Columbia were guilty of some complicated, hidden agenda, then fine, let’s investigate that and be upfront about it,” said Rosenthal.

“What seems to be as utterly straightforward is that there is no justice to the claim that Columbia has something in its past to explain."

But Norwood said that institutions have some soul-searching to do, and that universities are neglecting their role in failing to respond to his research with an inquiry into and acknowledgement of past wrongs. “What strikes me is the lack of feeling in regard to these issues. What happened is very, very serious."

“One of the reasons for writing the book is to develop more public awareness in these institutions, to get universities to address their pasts,” Norwood said. “I think that universities should look at their pasts and examine them carefully and take steps when they can to acknowledge past injustices, and not give such priority to protecting their own reputations.”

‘Over the top?’

A number of scholars said that universities should stand ready to investigate their pasts, as prepared to find skeletons as sunshine. But where to draw the line?

“There always is a question of significance and worth.  Not all topics, positive or negative, warrant the same amount of attention,” said John R. Thelin, a professor of educational policy studies at the University of Kentucky and author of A History of American Higher Education ( Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).

But, he added, “Since many universities often have a great deal of time and resources to devote to telling the institutional story they wish to tell, I think it is not unreasonable to expect the same universities to allow time and resources to look at many significant areas -- including those that may be controversial.”

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with investigation,” said Harry Watson, a professor of history and director of the Center for the Study of the American South at UNC-Chapel Hill. “Learning the facts is not a wrongdoing. There ought not to be any lines that you can’t cross, or topics that you can’t ask questions about.”

However, Watson cautioned, preserving the context of these sorts of inquiries is important: “I do think, it’s not so much wrong, as simply inaccurate, to try to make the universities look like they are the agencies that are or were primarily responsible for these kinds of injustices in the past,” he said, pointing out, for instance, that UNC is not responsible for slavery in North Carolina. “If we carry this to the point of flagellating the universities and leaving the rest of America’s institutions alone, then I think that’s misplaced energy.”

At Colgate, Ed Kalish, co-president of the Students for Social Justice, said activists will accept nothing less than what they concede to be the complicated process of renaming the Cutten Complex, named after a Colgate president from 1922-42 whose  quote calling the American "melting pot" destructive to the white race is on display at Ellis Island as an example of anti-immigrant thinking. Jaime Nolan, dean of undergraduate affairs at Colgate and a co-chair of the working group established in March to investigate the topic, said that while the committee has not yet formalized its recommendations, expected by winter break, the process has been an educational one for students. Not just a debate of “what’s in a name,” the group’s discussion has opened the door for complication, not simplification, Nolan said. “We have, on the one hand, somebody who wrote the Declaration of Independence who also had slaves. There have been these contradictions throughout our history, and there’s such an opportunity in that. We get to delve into how complex we are.”

Yet, Richard A. Epstein, a professor of law at the University of Chicago and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, argued that it is just those types of complexities that get lost in reports such as Brown’s.

“The difficulty with the Brown situation is that every single major institution in the United States would have a report that was that bad or far worse,” Epstein said. “All the good things that these guys did will simply disappear. You remember Jefferson as a slave owner; you won’t remember him as the author of the Declaration of Independence. I think they’re going way over the top with all this.”

Reports like Brown’s represent an “over-trivialization of history,” Epstein added: “It’s a very strange thing to read that report and see how Brown manages to make itself the center of the moral universe, for good and for bad.”

“They’re taking truly horrific events and just by virtue of the way they’re being introduced, the context is all wrong.”

 

 

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