Members of the Diversity and Inclusion Council:
I write to convey my charge about your leadership of this year’s planned dialogue about names of Hasbrouck Complex buildings. I look forward to responding to any questions you may have when I meet with you on September 21. I will be sharing the charge with the campus community later today as well.
“We tell stories about who we are by the names we put on buildings.” What stories about SUNY New Paltz are we telling by the names on our buildings? How do we think about the history of the Huguenot families in New Paltz, the historical trajectory of our campus when the buildings were named, and our present values of diversity, equity, and inclusion that differ from previous eras? How do we convey our history openly and honestly so that it informs our understanding, both historical and contemporary?
These are the kinds of questions that should guide our dialogue this year. As I wrote previously, this charge is not within the normal scope of responsibility that we envisioned for the Council. But you are best positioned to guide this discussion, when we are embarking on a series of diversity and inclusion goals to make SUNY New Paltz an even better place to learn, work, and live. The very process we are undertaking should foster frank and open discussion about slavery, race, and contemporary issues of diversity and inclusion. Both the process and the outcomes are at the core of the Council’s purpose, and support and align with the year’s organizing theme of “citizenship.”
I am asking you to foster a transparent, open, respectful community dialogue. Implications of the Hasbrouck Complex building names have been raised over many years, sometimes during student protests but with no follow-up, and discussed (mostly quietly and behind-the-scenes), but we have not addressed this issue openly, honestly, and transparently as a community. The time is right for us to do so. I repeat the following from an earlier message: It would be naïve to think that these discussions will not be difficult. They will require the empathy and careful listening that I have written about before. We need to be aware at the outset that this discussion will draw attention from audiences beyond the university, and that others will be watching our process and its outcome. We have an opportunity to model problem-solving and community building that is sadly elusive in much of contemporary society.
In recent weeks, I have heard from members of our community with opposing, solidified views about what the outcome of this process should be. I do not have a preconceived notion of the outcome, and hope that you can adopt such an open-minded view as you approach this work, applying the principle that careful speaking and listening must come before you formulate recommendations.
Your overall charge:
- To analyze and build understanding of historical and contemporary issues surrounding our building names, including northern slavery and its legacies;
- Building on the results of that educational and information-gathering process, develop carefully articulated pros and cons of either retaining or replacing those names, each with supporting evidence and arguments;
- Formulate a recommendation for my consideration that best reflects the shared understanding of your work.
- The scope of your charge does not include considering or recommending alternative names. I do not want particular alternatives to steer the discussion away from core matters. If the Council’s work results in a recommendation to change one or more names, we will engage a separate deliberative, consultative process to develop new names to recommend to the College Council and Board of Trustees. Any changes must be consistent with Board of Trustees policies (link provided below, as these policies are part of the broader framework for your work).
- To provide me with a report of your activities, findings and recommendations by April 15, 2018. That lengthy timeline reflects my intention that we give this topic the full attention it deserves, and ensures we will have an opportunity to examine multiple perspectives.
Here are the elements of the process I expect you to incorporate in your work:
- To lead a process that is inclusive, drawing on the voices and perspectives of all members of the campus and broader New Paltz communities, including current students, faculty and staff, alumni, members of the College Council (who have authority to approve building names before they are presented to the Board of Trustees), New Paltz and Hudson Valley residents, and community partners.
- To engage with Historic Huguenot Street (HHS) in New Paltz. HHS has agreed to be a close partner in these discussions, and has already undertaken programming – such as the recent “Slave-Dwelling Project” – to educate about this history and its contemporary consequences, including reckoning with slave ownership by early Huguenots. Dr. LaTasha Brown, Digital Media and Journalism, serves on the Program Committee at HHS and will provide an important scholarly/academic link between HHS and our campus initiative; she has agreed to my request to serve as a formal member of the Council for this project. Two members of the HHS Board, Dr. A.J. Williams-Myers, emeritus professor of Black Studies, and Veronica Claypool Butler, New Paltz resident and daughter-in-law of Dr. Marjorie Butler, who founded the Black Studies Department, have met with me about this endeavor and stand ready to participate. They, along with Board Chair Mary Etta Schneider, will help you connect with members of the Huguenot families and their family organizations; they clearly have a stake in our process and its outcome and must be provided opportunities to contribute their views.
- To develop a strong scholarly foundation for your work. As you listen to views on this topic, it will be essential that thoughtful, evidence-based arguments weigh more heavily in your assessments than opinion or emotional response. In support of this work I have asked Council member Dr. Reynolds Scott-Childress to join Tanhena Pacheco Dunn as co-Chairs of the Council this year because of his scholarly interests that include the history of race in America, and because of his curricular and other experiences. Dr. Williams-Myers, a scholar of slavery, the slave trade, and African-American history, and Dr. Brown, whose scholarship focuses on social memory, popular culture, and the Black Caribbean diaspora, will lend further important scholarly perspective, as will other faculty and local historians.
- To welcome members of an expanded council that will temporarily include: two undergraduate history students who have conducted research on Huguenot family names on campus buildings; Ron Law, a member of the College Council and a New Paltz alumnus; and Vice President for Communication Shelly Wright, who will support institutional messaging and communication as this process unfolds.
- To develop multiple avenues of soliciting input. Other institutions undertaking such processes have organized discussion groups, web-based surveys, town-hall open forums, and consultation with scholars. It will be essential at the outset to establish clear parameters for respectful, civil, informed input.
- To include multiple student discussions in the residence halls, as well as opportunities for off-campus and commuter students to provide input. I have briefed student leaders in Residence Hall Student Association and Student Association and they have agreed to help organize student events. Dr. Anne Balant, Presiding Officer of the Faculty, has agreed to help support faculty/staff forums.
- To ensure that open forums or other events that may attract public interest are coordinated in advance with Richard Winters, Director of Community and Government Relations, for appropriate institutional planning, safety and order. Staff in the Office of Communication and Marketing as well as Institutional Research stand ready to assist with communication and information-gathering needs throughout this process.
- To draw on the work and experiences of other colleges and universities that have evaluated legacy names on campus buildings or programs. The resources appended below include examples of processes or reports from three institutions. I have not done an exhaustive search and am certain that more, similar resources are available. I’ve included an 8-minute YouTube video of comments from members of a review committee at Yale University that I found to provide an especially valuable framework to explore these issues (and the source of the opening quote above!), and an example of how Harvard Law handled such a matter.
I thank you in advance for your dedication to this important process. I expect to receive regular reports from Tanhena Pacheco Dunn in her and my regular meetings, and, of course, stand ready if I can assist with matters of process or principle.
Donald P. Christian
ADDENDUM: Resources for the Diversity and Inclusion Council Dialogue on Hasbrouck Complex Building Names
Processes at Other Universities
University of Michigan:
Chronicle of Higher Education: How Should We Memorialize Slavery? (August 29, 2017)
American Historical Association statement on confederate monuments, endorsed by the Organization of American Historians
SUNY Policy on Naming
What Should We Do About Our comments (9/7/17 Inside Higher Ed article about possible change in “comments” policies). This may guide Council thinking about civil input you will consider):
A thoughtful article (and plaque image) of Harvard Law School’s efforts to portray its historical linkages to slavery: