Some universities are nervous about the Ralph Papitto controversy . Papitto, 80 years old and very wealthy, used the N-word in a discussion of diversity at a trustees meeting of the Roger Williams law school, which bears his name. After protests, Papitto requested that his name be removed. But that appears to be in response to heavy pressure from protesters and the university. Papitto said that the N-word “just kinda slipped out” and that the word, which he said has never been in his vocabulary, may have come to mind after he listened to rap music. Those unconvincing explanations made it seem that he very much wanted to be excused so that Ralph A. Papitto Law School could retain its name.
The removal of a donor’s name from a university school or building in the wake of a racial slur is very unusual. But universities are on alert because naming battles are now fairly common, mostly over buildings named for felon-donors from Kenneth Lay to Alfred Taubman.
While debate over naming raged, Seton Hall University students went to classes at Dennis Kozlowski Hall, passed through the Dennis Kozlowski rotunda on their way to the Frank Walsh Library or perhaps to the (Robert) Brennan Recreation Center. Kozlowski, former chief executive officer of Tyco, was convicted of 22 counts of conspiracy, securities fraud, grand larceny and falsifying records. Tyco board member Frank Walsh pleaded guilty to concealing a $20 million bonus and First Jersey Securities founder Robert Brennan is serving time for bankruptcy, fraud, and money laundering. The Kozlowski name was removed from the hall and the rotunda at his request and the university regents changed the name of the Brennan Center. Seton Hall kept Walsh’s name on the library on rounds that his offense was milder and that he pleaded guilty.
Sotheby’s felon Alfred Taubman, imprisoned for a year in a conspiracy to fix commissions with rival auction house Christie’s, managed to affix his name to schools at four universities: Harvard (the Taubman Center for State and Local Government), Brown (the Taubman Center for Public Policy), Lawrence Technological University (A. Alfred Taubman Student Services Center) and the University of Michigan (the medical library, the architectural school and part of the campus hospital).
All four institutions are committed to retaining the Taubman name. The decision looks particularly egregious at Harvard and Brown. At a time of low political ethics, what does it say about universities that let their public policy schools keep the names of famous crooks?
In general, universities are reluctant to change the felon names. Sometimes the universities imply that they are committed to keeping their end of a bargain – you give us the millions we’ll name the building after you. At Brown administrators decided they could keep the Taubman Center name and could rightly keep Taubman’s money because it was donated by 1984 and his crimes occurred later. So apparently it’s okay to honor criminals who donate before their proven felonies.
Brown is guilty of moral gymnastics here. But at least the Papitto case hasn’t reawakened the controversy over the Brown family. If one N-word can get your name deleted, what should happen to a university named for slave-trading brothers?