Law School Will Lose Name of Donor Who Used Slur

Former board chair who used slur requests change as Roger Williams students and faculty protested association with him.
July 19, 2007

The Ralph R. Papitto School of Law at Roger Williams University will soon lose the Papitto name, now associated with a slur.

On Wednesday, Papitto asked the university's board, which until recently he led, to remove his name, and the board quickly said that it would do so. The Roger Williams campus and much of Rhode Island have been debating the appropriateness of honoring Papitto in any way, let alone with a law school's name, since the revelation that he had used the word "nigger" at a university board meeting in May. While Papitto apologized and eventually left the board, many at the university were outraged that his name remained on the law school and that the three board members who had urged him to resign after he used the slur were themselves forced off the board. Reports have also circulated that Papitto has made other rude remarks not only about black people, but about members of other ethnic groups.

By Wednesday, student and faculty groups were organizing petition drives or resolutions to demand a change in the law school's name, and Rhode Island talk radio stations were devoting hours to discussion of the controversy.

On Wednesday afternoon, Papitto issued a statement that repeated his apology, repeated his denial that he had made other slurs, and announced that he had asked to have his name removed from the law school. In the statement, he said that he has been engaged in "soul searching and reflection," much of it focused on how to "mitigate the damage" that the controversy has caused to the university.

"I do not want this controversy, which at present is running out of control, to further the damage already caused to the university," he wrote. "A continued public discussion and debate over the name of the law school serves only to further damage the university. Therefore, and as a reflection of the sincerity of my regret and of my deep commitment to Roger Williams University, I have today asked the Board of Trustees to remove my name from the law school."

Roy J. Nirschel, president of the university, issued a statement Wednesday evening indicating that the board has "accepted" Papitto's request and saying that the name change would take place in a "timely and orderly fashion." Nirschel thanked Papitto for "making what must have been a difficult decision, but one that is in the best interest of the university to which he has devoted so many years of his life."

Nirschel praised students and faculty members for the way the campus has "buzzed with a diverse mosaic of ideas and opinions" in recent days, and managed to do so with civility. "Roger Williams University is moving forward as a stronger institution, even more united around our core values. I am confident that the outstanding new board of trustees will commit itself to those values of inclusive excellence, civility, and respect for every individual," he said.

Most of the public debate in recent days has focused on the slur Papitto used. But some have also noted that Papitto has had significant control over the board, and therefore the university, for decades, and the board has been criticized as insular and lacking in diversity. Papitto in fact made the slur in discussing an accreditor's criticism of the board for those reasons. The board recently agreed to expand, and the new trustees include more women and non-white members than the board has ever had.

June Speakman, an associate professor of political science and president of the Faculty Senate, said she was pleased that the law school's name would change. She said that professors felt strongly that it was wrong to continue to honor Papitto. "I think this is a significant sign in terms of the university's responsiveness to its various constituencies."

But Speakman also said that the controversy pointed to a problematic disconnect between the board and the university it governs. "The board has been so untransparent that none of us have really known what was going on there," she said. "The university has built its reputation aside from whatever the board is doing."

While Speakman said professors would probably praise Wednesday's developments, she stressed that faculty members "still have a lot of unanswered questions." One of the major ones, she said, is why three trustees who objected to Papitto's statement were ousted from the board.

Barbara Roberts, the one of the three who went public with the story, said in an interview Wednesday that Papitto "did the right thing" in asking to have his name taken off of the law school. But asked if the university had reached out to her to ask her back to the board, she said that had not happened.


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