Rutgers creating committee to study racist history, suggest atonement

Rutgers University announced Tuesday that as part of its year-long 250th anniversary celebration, it will create a committee to examine racism in the school’s history.

The announcement was made in a campus-wide email—a copy of which was obtained by Campus Reform—from Dr. Richard Edwards, Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs and Chancellor of the university’s New Brunswick campus.

“Throughout the next twelve months, special events and programs will examine and celebrate the University’s revolutionary pursuit of teaching, research, and service,” Edwards wrote. “As some in the Rutgers community have pointed out in recent weeks, we must acknowledge that our history also includes some facts that we have ignored for too long, such as that our campus is built on land taken from the Lenni-Lenape and that a number of our founders and early benefactors were slave holders.”

Although Rutgers is not the only such “colonial college,” Edwards asserts, “it is time that we begin to recognize the role that disadvantaged populations such as African Americans and Native tribes played in the University’s development.”

To that end, he is creating a “Committee on Enslaved and Disenfranchised Populations in Rutgers History” composed of staff, faculty, and students, which will be tasked with “examining the role that the people of these disadvantaged groups played in the founding and development of Rutgers University, and with making recommendations to me [Edwards] on how the University can best acknowledge their influence on our history.”

Edwards gave several examples of the sorts of recommendations he expects from the committee, such as historical markers, symposia, lectures, talks, and teach-ins, but did not respond when Campus Reform asked whether those examples were intended as a guideline of what he might accept or merely as a starting point.

Nor did Edwards clarify the significance of his reference to a “similar committee” at Brown University, which he held up in his email as a model for the Rutgers committee.

Brown’s “Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice” was convened in 2003 and issued its final report in 2007, which documented the university’s historical ties to the slave trade, including the fact that the school acquired its current name after receiving a large contribution from one of the leading commercial families in Providence, some members of which engaged in slave trading.

To help Brown atone for its past, the committee issued a list of recommendations, such as establishing a memorial to the slave trade on campus, establishing “a center for continuing research on slavery and justice,” and increasing financial aid and recruiting efforts for minority students.

In its official response, Brown accepted most of the suggestions made by the committee, with the only notable exception being the financial aid and recruiting proposal, and even that blow was softened by the university’s unsolicited commitment to expand the Africana Studies program, continue its support of historically black colleges and universities, and strengthen an exchange program with Tougaloo College, a predominantly black institution in Mississippi.

Those initiatives, however, failed to prevent racial controversy from erupting at the school earlier this year, when the student newspaper was subjected to ultimatums from minority groups demanding a show of contrition for running two op-eds with which some students disagreed.

The extent to which the Rutgers committee will emulate the model provided by Brown remains to be seen, which could take quite a while if it follows Brown’s methodical precedent.

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