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Many colleges have been struggling to reconcile their views of those who founded or rescued the institutions -- treated as heroes for decades -- with the reality that they supported slavery. Consider the discussions at the University of Virginia or Washington and Lee University.
On Wednesday, Bryn Mawr College announced how it would deal with the legacy of M. Carey Thomas, who was its president from 1894 to 1922. The college is removing Thomas's name from several awards and also will stop referring to a central building on campus as Thomas Hall, and to the main room within the building as Thomas Great Hall. Instead the building will be called the Old Library and the room Great Hall, their original names.
However, the college has decided not to remove the Thomas name from the facade of the building. Students and alumnae are responding with both praise and criticism -- some saying that the college has gone too far, and others not far enough in its treatment of Thomas.
Discussion of the Thomas name has periodically been a hot issue, but it has received more attention in the last year as the violence in Charlottesville, Va., a year ago prompted many colleges to study their histories. A faculty panel studied Thomas as an important and complicated part of the college's history.
For Bryn Mawr, Thomas has long been seen as a role model. She not only advocated for women's education but insisted on the highest standards -- comparable to those of leading institutions that didn't admit women -- for students and faculty members.
But as a statement released Wednesday by Ann Logan, chair of the board, outlined, Thomas not only held bigoted views but acted on them in ways that blocked opportunities for Jewish and black people. And she espoused white supremacy.
"In her opening address for the 1916 academic year at Bryn Mawr, for example, she argued to the assembled students and faculty: 'If the present intellectual supremacy of the white races is maintained, as I hope that it will be for centuries to come, I believe that it will be because they are the only races that have seriously begun to educate their women.' In this same Convocation speech, she maintained that the immigration of 'backward people of Europe' [Slavs, Czechs, and southern Italians] and mixing of the races 'endanger(ed) our great position among the nations of the world," the statement said.
The statement added, "Thomas both spoke openly of these beliefs and acted on them on behalf of the college. She blocked the hiring of Jewish faculty and the admission of qualified Jewish students. She refused to consider the admission of African American students, even rescinding admission offers made to qualified African American students. She denied a Bryn Mawr education and employment to exceptional persons because of their backgrounds. Though these policies were not unique among elite institutions of the time, the board noted that Thomas’ perspective and actions are antithetical to the college’s value of inclusion."
The letter explained the decision to keep the Thomas name visible on the building this way. "In leaving M. Carey Thomas’ name on the building and not renaming it in another person’s honor, we will continue to value President Thomas’ many remarkable contributions to the College. The inscription also reminds us to confront all aspects of Thomas’ legacy and to tell our full history. We recognize that for many the building will always be 'Thomas' -- indeed, that is a part of our history … We need to preserve and engage with this history and build it into the education we provide. We hope, moreover, that this decision will offer opportunities to understand and share many other histories."
On the college's Facebook page, students and others have been debating the new approach to Thomas. A number of comments are highly critical of leaving the Thomas name on the building.
A student at the college wrote, "This decision is reprehensible. How can Bryn Mawr College side with white supremacy over the lived experiences of their current students?! There is no equity nor inclusion in this, just more erasure of and disregard for students of color and Jewish students on this campus."
But at least one alumna who was deeply critical of Thomas wasn't worried about the name. "I have degrees from several institutions, BMC included, whose glorified founders, leaders, and patrons of other eras would’ve been horrified at my admission," she wrote. "Maybe I’m just perverse, but I got rich pleasure out of walking every day into libraries and classrooms and lecture halls that formerly would’ve been closed to me and still bear the names of those who barred the doors. Giving them the metaphorical finger of my presence gave me the determination to get what they would have denied me -- my degree -- and leave behind a very different legacy."