In a response to a petition calling for a change to the name of the campus dining hall to honor a long-time employee, SUNY New Paltz president Donald P. Christian said he’d ask the university’s Diversity and Inclusion Council to look at the pros and cons of retaining or replacing the names of campus buildings named for the town’s founding families, who were slaveholders.
“Some view these building names as perpetuating the legacy of slavery, and I am aware that some students, particularly students of color, have expressed their discomfort about living in halls with these names,” wrote Christian. “These issues have not been addressed fully and openly by our community to ensure that the visible symbolism of building names is culturally consistent with our values. Now is the right time to do so, when our nation is engaged in discourse about removing Confederate statues or changing building names that commemorate or memorialize the era of slavery in America.”
The petition on Change.org, signed by over 2,000, asked that Hasbrouck Dining Hall be named for Darold Thompson, who worked at the dining hall (through food-service contractor Sodexo) for 17 years. The petition did not make any reference to the building’s current namesake or the broader national conversation about renaming buildings.
After stating that he would be unable to grant the request to change the name of the dining hall, Christian brings up the wider issue of building namesakes. “This worthy effort to honor a longtime employee brings immediacy to a matter I have been thinking about for some time: initiating a community dialogue about names of the Hasbrouck Dining Hall and residence halls in that complex.”
Buildings in that part of campus, which abuts S. Manheim Blvd., include the dining hall and four residence halls: Bevier, Crispell, Deyo, DuBois, and Lefevre.
“There is no question that each of these families owned slaves during the period of slavery in New York,” writes Christian. “This is a shameful and painful legacy that we must acknowledge and portray openly and honestly.”
Christian said the Council will look at the question of retaining or replacing the building names, but won’t debate alternative names. “If the Council’s work results in a recommendation to change one or more names, we will engage a further deliberative, consultative process to develop new names to recommend to the Board of Trustees; any changes must be consistent with Board of Trustees policies.”
He said the report would be made by April 15, 2018.
Here’s the full letter:
Hasbrouck Complex Building Names: A Call for Community Dialogue
NEW PALTZ – The following statement was sent by SUNY New Paltz President Donald P. Christian to the campus community and alumni today. A detailed charge to the College’s Diversity and Inclusion Council will be communicated to the campus after Labor Day.
Members of the SUNY New Paltz Community:
I write for two purposes and ask that you read the entirety of this letter:
I am responding to a change.org petition asking that the College rename Hasbrouck Dining Hall; and
I am introducing a process we will undertake to evaluate the current names of buildings in the Hasbrouck Complex.
The petition asks that Hasbrouck Dining Hall, in whole or in part, be renamed to honor the memory of Darold Thompson, a New Paltz alumnus and long-term Sodexo food service employee who passed away recently. It is clear from the petition comments that Darold was a friend and inspiration to many students during his 17 years as a Hasbrouck employee. I enjoyed my interactions with him when we met on campus or now-and-then at the gym. He will be missed by many.
I am moved by the outpouring of support for a member of our community who embodied much of the spirit of New Paltz, from people who interacted with him daily over many years. Despite my appreciation for that sentiment, I am unable to honor the request to rename Hasbrouck Dining Hall in this way, as this request is not consistent with longstanding practice and current Board of Trustees policy. More recently, when a beloved member of our community has passed away, friends, family, or colleagues have worked with our Foundation to raise funds to memorialize that individual through a tree, bench, or plaque. The campus is considering alternative ways to honor Darold, and more information will be shared shortly about how those interested may contribute to that effort.
This brings me to my second purpose for writing. This worthy effort to honor a longtime employee brings immediacy to a matter I have been thinking about for some time: initiating a community dialogue about names of the Hasbrouck Dining Hall and residence halls in that complex. Some view these building names as perpetuating the legacy of slavery, and I am aware that some students, particularly students of color, have expressed their discomfort about living in halls with these names. These issues have not been addressed fully and openly by our community to ensure that the visible symbolism of building names is culturally consistent with our values. Now is the right time to do so, when our nation is engaged in discourse about removing Confederate statues or changing building names that commemorate or memorialize the era of slavery in America. This is also a time that 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.
Accordingly, over this academic year we will foster a transparent, open, respectful dialogue to 1) analyze and build awareness and understanding of historical and contemporary issues surrounding these names and northern slavery, with the help of scholars including our own faculty members; and 2) develop a consensus view about both the pros and cons of either retaining or replacing those names. We undertake this process with no preconceived notion of the outcome, and with the understanding that careful speaking and listening must come before conclusions are drawn. This process will be inclusive, drawing on the voices and perspectives of all members of the campus and broader New Paltz communities. We will also learn from the experiences of other colleges and universities that have evaluated names attached to statues or buildings recognizing individuals whose actions promoted or supported slavery or racial discrimination.
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.
I am asking the Diversity and Inclusion Council to lead this process as a priority of its work this year, issuing a report of its 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.
This charge is beyond the normal scope of responsibility that we envisioned when forming the Council, but I see this group as best positioned to lead our community through this discussion, with the care and attention it deserves. The Council will provide multiple forums to invite broad input from current students, alumni, faculty and staff, members of the College Council, Historic Huguenot Street and other community partners.
The detailed charge to the Diversity and Inclusion Council will be communicated to the campus after Labor Day. My charge directs the Council to determine whether to retain or replace these building names, not to debate alternative names. If the Council’s work results in a recommendation to change one or more names, we will engage a further deliberative, consultative process to develop new names to recommend to the Board of Trustees; any changes must be consistent with Board of Trustees policies. Here is a brief summary of relevant background, which will be a platform for launching this dialogue.
Buildings in the Hasbrouck Complex are named after Huguenot families – Bevier, Crispell, Deyo, DuBois, Hasbrouck, and Lefevre – that were the original settlers of New Paltz, and that have more than three centuries of history in the United States. These buildings were named explicitly to recognize these families, not individual family members, and not specifically the founding members.
There is no question that each of these families owned slaves during the period of slavery in New York. This is a shameful and painful legacy that we must acknowledge and portray openly and honestly. We must recognize that the legacy of the building names has a very different, painful impact for African-American members of our campus community than for others. Historic Huguenot Street (HHS) in New Paltz maintains historic buildings dating back to the earliest European settlement of this community, and engages in educational programming about Huguenot history. HHS has agreed to be a 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. We will welcome the expertise and viewpoints from HHS members, among them emeritus professor of black studies, A.J. Williams-Myers, who serves on the HHS board. You will hear more soon about an upcoming event co-sponsored by HHS, SUNY New Paltz, and other organizations that will inform thinking about this legacy of slavery.
The Hasbrouck buildings were built and named in the 1960s, about 130 years after slaves were emancipated in New York, and about 100 years after the end of the Civil War. Current prominent citizens in the Hudson Valley and beyond, white and black, are further descendants who carry these family names. Those families and their influence on higher education opportunities in New Paltz are a key part of the College’s deep roots in this community.
This is the complex history that we must understand and translate into meaning — about the names we attach to campus buildings, the history behind those names, and what they convey about our values. SUNY New Paltz has a longstanding reputation as an inclusive, welcoming and diverse learning community dedicated to providing a path to a better life for New York citizens. We are proud of our work over many decades to advance that goal. Our purpose in this effort is to evaluate and embrace what we stand for, in order to ensure rich learning opportunities for future generations of citizens.
We will provide frequent communication to the community about this effort.
Donald P. Christian