A Board Implodes Over N-Word

At Roger Williams U., 3 board members who criticized chair's use of racial slur are ousted; chair then leaves, too.
July 16, 2007

Roger Williams University announced last week that its board chair of nearly 40 years, Ralph R. Papitto, a major donor for whom the law school is named, was retiring from the board. The press release praised Papitto's "visionary leadership" and said that he considered the diversification of the board as one of his greatest accomplishments.

What the press release doesn't say is that the board today consists only of white men. Nor does it say that the board's two women and one other man were just ousted -- after the three demanded Papitto's resignation for using the slur "nigger" in a board meeting.

The board turmoil went public this weekend when one of the ousted female trustees told her story to The Providence Journal. In interviews with Inside Higher Ed on Sunday, that trustee, Barbara Roberts, and Papitto presented very different views of what is going on at Roger Williams. Roberts described a board beholden to Papitto and unable to act when he crossed a basic line of decency. Although Papitto has now left the board, she said the university got rid of the trustees who had raised the issue, heaped praise on Papitto, and plans to honor him in perpetuity with its law school name.

"It's disgusting. His name is still on the law school -- a known racist and anti-Semite," she said. (There are other charges about comments Papitto has made about Jews, which he denies.)

Papitto, 80, on Sunday admitted using the slur in the board meeting, but said that he is not a racist or anti-Semite and that he doesn't know why he used the word. He said that Roberts was always "agitating" for more diversity on the board and he questioned the loyalty of trustees for talking about the situation. He compared himself to Don Imus, whose radio career was destroyed after he used slurs to talk about the Rutgers University women's basketball team.

"He had millions of people listening, but this was 10 people behind closed doors," he said. "Trustees are committed to confidentiality, so how would anybody else know about it unless they went out and discussed it?"

The comment took place at a May meeting of the board, which was discussing criticism the university had received from its accreditor over board diversity. Barbara Brittingham, director of the higher education division of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, said that it had sent a "notice of concern" to the university with regard to its board. The notice is a serious step, one the association takes only five or six times a year. Brittingham said that the notice didn't specify that the university needed a certain board membership or structure, but focused on ways that the board was violating its own rules and stated goals about elections, membership and other topics.

Papitto and Roberts agree that he was discussing this notice when he made the slur. Roberts recalled Papitto saying: "They want us to add more poor kids and they want us to add more, well, I can’t call them 'niggers,' I learned that from Imus."

Papitto's memory of the event is only a little different. "We were talking about Latinos, underprivileged, Vietnamese, people who are qualified and not qualified and that kind of thing," he said. One of the topics was trustee selection, and Papitto said he said that "it's easy to put a trustee on, but it's a son of a gun to get one off," and that somewhere in there, he made the slur.

"It just came out. It happens," Papitto said. "They are calling me a racist for one incident."

The article in The Providence Journal, however, suggested that this was not just one incident. The article quoted an e-mail from Roy J. Nirschel, the president of the university, to the trustees who were angered by the slur, in which he said: "None of it came [as a] surprise. He has lambasted blacks, Muslims and Jews before in front of staff."

Papitto said that Nirschel was "a very insecure guy" who was uncomfortable with having Papitto "a hands-on board chair." (Nirschel said he didn't want to respond to Papitto's remarks about him, but said he was proud of the progress the university is making. He also said that slurs about members of any group, by anyone affiliated with the university, are "completely unacceptable.")

As for accusations that he has a pattern of remarks about members of certain groups, Papitto said that "my best friends in my whole professional career are Jewish people," and described his role in creating an Italian country club 40 years ago when the establishment clubs wouldn't admit Italians (among other groups). "Some of our members had this prejudice kind of thing," and wanted to only let Italians in. "But one of the first things I did was to open up this club," he said. Four decades, the several hundred members include 2 black people and 12 Jewish people, he said.

After the meeting where Papitto made the remark, Roberts and the two other trustees who have since been ousted demanded his resignation. An emergency meeting was held the next week at which Papitto apologized. In the weeks that followed, as three board members pushed for Papitto's ouster, the board's executive committee removed them instead. Roberts said that she and others were repeatedly pressured to "be quiet" about the slur and that they were clearly removed as retribution for not doing so.

Papitto, asked why the three trustees were removed, cited several reasons. First, he said that they had missed board meetings. Then he said that Roberts was "always agitating" and that she repeatedly demanded that women get a majority of seats on the board. (Roberts said she repeatedly urged fellow board members to diversify their membership, but that it was "ludicrous" to say that she demanded a female majority for the board.)

An hour after first talking to Inside Higher Ed, Papitto called back to say that there was another reason he wanted Roberts off the board. Papitto said that a few weeks ago, he received an anonymous packet of newspaper clippings about Roberts having "ties to the mob," through her cardiology practice, and that he discussed this with key advisers who agreed that this was a problem. "Is this the kind of person who should be a trustee?"

Roberts is in fact a prominent cardiologist who is director of the Women's Cardiac Center at Miriam Hospital, which is affiliated with Brown University's medical school, where she is a clinical associate professor. Her work on heart disease and women has won her scientific praise and White House invitations. In 1980, the father of one of the lawyers for a reputed organized crime boss was a patient of hers, and through that tie, she ended up treating the alleged boss, Raymond L.S. Patriarca, and testifying that he was too ill for a trial. Roberts noted that judges agreed with her conclusion and that Patriarca died a few years later.

She called the idea that she had mob ties -- and that this issue from 1980 surfaced in an anonymous mailing just as she was putting pressure on Papitto to quit -- "a little funny," adding that "I have thousands of patients. I took the Hippocratic Oath and I take care of anyone who wants me to be their cardiologist." In fact, until recently, Papitto was one of her patients.

So where does this leave Roger Williams, now that both Papitto and his critics are off the board?

Papitto said that the board is about to have a major expansion, by 14 members, and that many of them would not be white males. Brittingham, of the New England accrediting group, said that she has met with Nirschel and that she believes Roger Williams and its board are taking governance issues seriously.

Nirschel said he believed that the board's reforms were significant and would reflect "best practices" on governance. He noted that a majority of those who will soon be joining the board are women and that the group will also include minority and international trustees. "I'm very pleased with the way we are going forward. At the end of the day, the results speak for themselves," he said.

Clifford Monteiro, president of the Providence NAACP, said that his group is beginning an investigation of what happened at Roger Williams. He said the NAACP wants to know more about whether attitudes reflected in the use of language carry over to policies at the university. He said he would also like to know why the three ousted trustees have not been reinstated, and called Roberts "a very courageous woman" for exposing what was said in the board room.

As for Roberts, she said she is not satisfied that nearly enough change is taking place at Roger Williams. Why honor Papitto instead of being honest? she said. And she noted that Papitto has been given the title chairman emeritus. As for the board, many other ties remain to Papitto.

He was succeeded as chairman by Richard Bready, who is chairman and chief executive of Nortek Inc., which Papitto founded. Other trustees, the Providence paper reported, include Papitto's son-in-law and a major stockholder in Nortek. "There are too many conflicts of interest on this board," Roberts said.

Roberts said that she was "appalled and enraged" by the way most trustees seemed uninterested in challenging Papitto and in going along with her ouster. She said that Nirschel was originally supportive of her efforts, but did nothing as she and other trustees objecting to Pepitto were removed from the board. "He hung me out to dry," she said of the president.

She also said that she believed Roger Williams needed to do more about diversity on a range of fronts. She said she was sorry to lose her position to influence such change, but that she felt that she had no moral choice but to speak up when a person with the power of a university board chair used such a slur.

"I sit on four other nonprofit boards. If any chair had used that word in any meeting, the entire board would have demanded his resignation immediately," she said. The ouster from the board and the tense meetings in recent weeks have been unpleasant, Roberts said, "but at the end of the day, what I have to live with is my own conscience."


Back to Top