The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees is ending an internship and grant program for students at United Negro College Fund institutions, to protest the UNCF's acceptance of a $25 million grant from Koch Industries and the Charles Koch Foundation. The gift had critics from the moment it was announced, with people noting efforts by the Koch brothers that they viewed as inconsistent with the interests of many black Americans. In a letter to Michael Lomax, the UNCF president, Lee A. Saunders, president of AFSCME, pulled no punches. His title for his letter -- "A Principle Is a Terrible Thing to Waste" -- is a play on the UNCF's slogan.
"Like many supporters of the UNCF, I was deeply troubled by your decision to accept $25 million from David and Charles Koch. But I assumed that in accepting those funds you were in no way supporting or lending the name of the UNCF to the political or social causes or substantive views of the Koch brothers," wrote Saunders. "So I was truly stunned to learn that less than two weeks later, you attended and spoke at the Koch brothers summit in California. This was a betrayal of everything the UNCF stands for. The avowed purpose of this private event was to build support -- financial and political -- for the Koch brothers' causes. Your appearance at the summit can only be interpreted as a sign of your personal support and the UNCF's organizational support of the Koch brothers' ideological program. The Koch brothers and the organizations they fund have devoted themselves for more than a decade to attacking the voting rights of African Americans. They support voter identification laws. They seek to restrict early voting and voter registration. They support laws that threaten organizations that register voters in the African American community."
Lomax issued a statement about the letter. "UNCF has over 100,000 donors with a wide range of views, but they all have one thing in common: They believe in helping young students of color realize their dreams of a college education. For over 70 years we have never had a litmus test and we have asked all Americans to support our cause," he said. "While I am saddened by AFSCME's decision, it will not distract us from our mission of helping thousands of African American students achieve their dream of a college degree and the economic benefits that come with it.”
The City of Salem, Mass. has killed a contract under which Gordon College has operated the city's historic Old Town Hall, Boston.com reported. The city cited the Christian college's "behavioral standards" for the college, which ban sex outside of heterosexual marriage. Gordon's policies have been in the news because its president signed a letter to President Obama asking that religious institutions be exempt from an executive order he is drafting to bar anti-gay discrimination by federal contractors. Gordon says that it is exercising its religious freedom. Salem officials say that they are committed to doing business only with entities that do not discriminate.
This week, in response to concerns expressed by student activists, Washington and Lee University announced changes to the display of Confederate flags on its campus. Northwestern University recently studied the involvement of one of its founders with a massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, while Duke University removed the name of a segregationist politician from a dormitory.
And many Northern and Southern colleges are considering evidence that they benefited from the colonial slave economy, as documented in Craig Steven Wilder's book Ebony and Ivy (2013). Inevitably, the older a college or university, the greater the likelihood it has some history of which it is not proud.
The question for those of us who work on complicit campuses is how to respond to this knowledge. When institutional identity collides with identity politics, the result is a microcosm of our national culture wars: debates over the meaning of contested events and people; questions about apologies and restitution; and demands by some to jettison traditions that others cherish.
What should a modern, multicultural institution do about history and symbols tainted by exclusion or discrimination?
First, we must boldly research and acknowledge the past, and then we need to think hard about how – or whether – our institutional identity should be recast. A principled response may mean changing the stories that we tell about ourselves. It may mean altering or recontextualizing the names, iconography, and traditions of our campus. In short, we owe it to our students to interpret any uncomfortable facts in light of our current values.
Confronted with a history that is contested, troubled, or downright shameful, there is no need for embarrassment. Rather, we should gather as many facts as possible, acting proactively and pursuing this research with rigor and candor. In the words of Brown University’s Slavery and Justice Commission, which explored Brown's ties to the slave trade, “Universities are dedicated to the discovery and dissemination of knowledge. They are conservators of humanity’s past.... If an institution professing these principles cannot squarely face its own history, it is hard to imagine how any other institution, let alone our nation, might do so.” The fearless embrace of scholarship and analysis is a powerful way of demonstrating institutional ideals.
In undertaking this work, we must be prepared for the possibility of dissent. Brown's review of its connections to slavery attracted the attention of both advocates and opponents of reparations, as well as demonstrations by white supremacists and the Nation of Islam.
But we cannot use the risk of conflict as an excuse to minimize the relevance of such “ancient” history. As Wilder says, this would be to “misunderstand the role that history should be playing in the modern academy. It reflects a sense that there is a problem to be managed rather than a history that has to be embraced and woven into the narrative of the institution. Every act of evasion only empowers those who actually are using the history politically.”
For colleges and universities, the past that we do not explain becomes the arena where others reveal the difficult truths we have avoided or, less constructively, project myths and agendas that contradict our institutional cultures.
Exposing the facts is only the first step. It is not usually the historical record that poses the problem; the hard choices arise in the interpretation of and response to that history.
Debate over the necessity for apologies or restitution is one common area of contention. These are decisions that institutions must make for themselves, but in the context of a contemporary college or university, acknowledgment is usually more important than apology, particularly when historical responsibility is murky or the recipient of the apology is not immediately identifiable.
At Brown, where the university was primarily a beneficiary of slavery rather than a perpetrator, President Ruth Simmons decided against a formal apology but committed the university to "restorative justice" activities, including the establishment of a scholarly center and creation of a traveling exhibit. In contrast, in June 2013, Babson College President Lewis Schlesinger chose to formally apologize to Brandeis University for the anti-Semitic behavior of Babson students at a soccer game in 1978 – an incident that took place within living memory under college auspices.
A second challenge arises from the messages embedded in campus iconography, names, and traditions. We are the present-day custodians of these symbols, and inaction on our part suggests an implicit or even explicit endorsement of such messages. At the very least, controversial symbols must be identified and explained, and in some cases the best response may be to abandon them.
Key factors for consideration are the level of connection between the problematic individual or event and the institution, and the existence of any relevant contractual requirements. Because the offensiveness of a name or tradition may be debated, colleges and universities must clearly explain their decisions to either retain or alter symbols.
At Northwestern, for example, significant honor has been given to the university founder John Evans, whose name appears on the alumni center and several professorships (as well as the town of Evanston, where the university is located). After a thorough review of the factual record, Northwestern’s John Evans Study Committee cleared Evans of direct involvement in an 1864 massacre of Native Americans but deplored his justification of it and noted that the university has benefited from Evans’ positive reputation. The committee recommended that Evans’s name remain in its honorific positions but that Northwestern also increase access for Native American students and enhance the study of Native American cultures.
At Duke University, following a similar review, President Richard H. Brodhead made a different decision, which was to strip the name of a segregationist politician from a campus dormitory. In Duke’s case, the eponymous man had minimal involvement with the university, and in the future the building will contain an explanation of the name change. Both of these differing approaches are appropriate to the circumstances, expressing a commitment to factual transparency while reframing the universities’ institutional narratives and reaffirming their modern values.
The situation currently unfolding at Washington and Lee University illustrates many of these considerations. Student activists demanded an apology for the university’s participation in slavery and a denunciation of Robert E. Lee’s participation; the removal of Confederate flags from the campus chapel; and an end to allowing the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an unaffiliated group, to hold an annual program on campus.
In his response this week, President Kenneth P. Ruscio announced plans to modify the display of Confederate flags and provide more historical and educational context designed to clarify their ambiguous message. While acknowledging the complexity of Lee’s legacy, Ruscio chose not to apologize for Lee’s actions prior to his affiliation with the university.
I agree that an apology is unnecessary. Far more meaningful will be a thorough airing of Washington and Lee’s institutional ties to slavery, which Ruscio has already launched. I question the wisdom of allowing outside groups to use the campus to promote their own interpretive agendas, but thoughtful disagreement about such complex topics is to be expected.
Washington and Lee cannot change its history, but it is doing the hard work of engaging with its past to shape its current and future culture. All colleges and universities must be prepared to do the same. As the historian Wilder states, “We can’t evade the consequences of the past or shift the responsibility of research to others. This is something we have to wrestle with.”
Michele Minter is vice provost for institutional equity and diversity at Princeton University.
Cheyney University on Thursday announced that Michelle R. Howard-Vital was retiring as president, and that an acting president will start on Monday. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the announcement followed discussions between Howard-Vital and Frank T. Brogan, chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, although system officials did not confirm that. Cheyney, a historically black college, has struggled with deficits and stagnant enrollment. In recent years, enrollment has been around 1,200, down from 3,000 in the 1970s.
Facing criticism that parts of its fight song lyrics are sexist, the University of Utah on Wednesday announced changes that will remove the implication that the perspective is a male one. The line “our coeds are the fairest” will be replaced with “our students are the finest” and the line “no other gang of college men” will now be “no rival band of college fans." A further complication is that the song has been called "A Utah Man." From now on it will be called "A Utah Man/Fan." The university, mindful that loyal alumni sometimes object to changes in tradition, created a webpage noting that the song has already changed many times in its history. And David Pershing, president of the university, issued a statement in which he said that the new lyrics were a suggestion, not mandatory. “When printed officially by the university, this 2014 version of the fight song will be used, but historical renditions of the song will always be acceptable," Pershing said. "We encourage you to sing – loudly and with pride – whichever version resonates with you.”
The College Board has issued a statement on behalf of itself and the Educational Testing Service, apologizing for a T-shirt that was made and sold by high school and college teachers who gathered in June to grade Advancement Placement exams in world history. Those who grade the exams have a tradition of creating a T-shirt, but this year's version offended many Asian Americans who were at the event. The T-shirt plays off of the Chinese Communist revolution in ways that struck critics as offensive. (There was a question about it on the AP exam.)
"It is unacceptable that one of the AP Exam Readers created a T-shirt that mocked historical events that were the cause of great pain and suffering, and promulgated racist stereotypes that further marginalize a racial minority," said the College Board statement.
Controversial survey of political climate at University of Colorado finds (to no one's surprise) that conservatives are in the minority, but also found that 96 percent of students believe their instructors promote respectful classroom environments.
Chapman University has agreed to pay $75,000 and mandate training for its business school professors to settle a lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of a former professor there, The Orange County Registerreported. Stephanie Dellande had alleged that the California institution denied her tenure and fired her because of her race. Chapman officials denied any wrongdoing in the case and said they settled it to end the costly litigation. Dellande will retroactively receive the title of associate professor but won't be rehired, and the faculty in the business school will be required to complete a one-hour training session on equal opportunity law.
Duke University will once again call East Residence Hall by that original name, stripping it of the name of the former North Carolina governor who had outspoken white supremacist views, President Richard H. Brodhead said in a letter to students this week. Students at Duke had pushed in recent months to change the name of Aycock Hall, a freshman residence that had been named in 1914 for the former North Carolina governor Charles B. Aycock, who pushed for both expanded public education and for segregation.
Brodhead said the decision to change a building's name was not made lightly, given the "strongest possible presumption" of permanence when a building is named. But "while Governor Aycock made notable contributions to public education in North Carolina, his legacy is inextricably associated with the disenfranchisement of black voters, or what W. E. B. DuBois termed 'a civic death.'... [T]he values of inclusion and nondiscrimination are key parts of the university's mission. After careful consideration, we believe it is no longer appropriate to honor a figure who played so active a role in the history that countered those values. In keeping with our educational role, an explanation of the history of the building's name will be displayed in the lobby of the East Residence Hall.In keeping with our educational role, an explanation of the history of the building's name will be displayed in the lobby of the East Residence Hall."