By Joseph Auslander
Several recent events on our campus have prompted me to think about some aspects of the history of the University of Maryland during my lengthy tenure here.
I came to Maryland in 1962. This was some years after the “Curly Byrd” era, but there were still some vestiges of it present. Ours was still very much a “southern campus.” For example, it was a noteworthy event when there were African American teaching assistants in the classroom, and there still were some departments that resisted it. And there was widespread housing discrimination in the area.
The events I have in mind include the removal of Byrd’s name from the stadium (welcome, if long overdue), the installation of the statue of Frederick Douglass in front of Hornbake library, and the naming of the Art-Sociology building in honor of Parren Mitchell.
The dedication and unveiling of the marvelous Douglass statue, which I attended, was a most moving occasion. It was planned and erected under the leadership of our colleague Ira Berlin. There was a large and appreciative gathering. In addition to administration, faculty, and student speakers, two descendants of Douglass were present and spoke.
The naming of the Art-Sociology building after Parren J. Mitchell is highly appropriate. Mitchell, later a congressman from Baltimore, was the first African-American graduate student at Maryland. This was not a routine admission—it was opposed by Byrd. Mitchell had to sue to be admitted and was aided in this endeavor by a young lawyer from Baltimore, namely Thurgood Marshall. And in fact Mitchell obtained a masters degree from the sociology department.
I was unable to attend the opening ceremony, but people I spoke with who did attend it in the atrium of the (then) Art-Sociology building, reported a lively and moving occasion, with recollections by several members of the Mitchell family, as well as some protests by a student (about the naming of the stadium). Occupants of the (now) Parren J Mitchell Art-Sociology Building were delighted finally to have their building given a name and such a distinguished one.
I write as someone who has often expressed criticism of our university (some of which have appeared in articles in The Faculty Voice), so I am gratified by the occurrence of these events. Still, one must ask the question, are they merely symbolic, or do they signify genuine change? Well, first of all symbols are important, in particular in light of our history. Douglass was a slave and then a freed man in Maryland, and as mentioned above, Mitchell had important connections with the university as well as the state and nation. And the Maryland sociology department is following up the dedication by hosting an annual Parren Mitchell Symposium on race and educational opportunity.
These actions are certainly necessary, but not sufficient. They are occurring at the same time as there are widespread student protests throughout the nation (indeed throughout the planet) confronting racism in academia. So we need to take a hard look at our own university. What progress has occurred, and what needs to be done?
The Draft Strategic Plan, distributed to the campus community in December 2015 by Provost Mary Ann Rankin contains a section on “Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion” which it asserts, “remains a North Star for this institution and a key to its success”. This document notes substantial progress, “the rising success and diversity of the undergraduate and graduate student bodies: the faculty and staff.” It also makes commendable proposals for the next steps, among other things, for “cultural competence courses,” and efforts to increase faculty diversity. On the other hand, this topic receives only cursory attention in the other sections of the plan.
Certainly these assertions and proposals would not have appeared in a university document fifty years ago.
In preparing this article, I have been informed by several interesting newspaper and journal articles concerning the student protests at universities. While not specifically about Maryland, they raise issues, which are certainly relevant for us.
Two of these were in the December 13, 2015 New York Times. Frank Bruni’s article “The Lie About College Diversity” points out that “the benefits of diversity do not spontaneously arise from the presence of a varied student body” and also “A … college may be a heterogeneous archipelago. But most of its students spend the bulk of their time on one of many homogeneous islands.” Eve Fairbanks’ article “The Global Face of Student Protests” notes the similarity of the protests in South Africa and Princeton.
A particularly thoughtful article by Georgetown law professor David Cole, “The Trouble at Yale” in the New York Review of Books, Jan. 14, 2016, is generally supportive of the demands of the students, but also critical of some of these (e.g. removal of name of the Masters of a college). For the most part he opposes the efforts to change the names of institutions (the Woodrow Wilson school at Princeton and Calhoun College at Yale) characterizing these as a “sideshow.” This is a controversial position—there are cogent arguments on each side. He then asserts (which is particularly appropriate for our campus), “It would be far better to commission new monuments, and to use new naming opportunities to express a message of inclusion, than to airbrush disturbing facts about our past.”
Having said this, I support the removal of Byrd’s name from the stadium, perhaps the subject of another article.
Cole also calls attention to a website http://www.thedemands.org which lists the actions at more than 50 colleges and universities (but not Maryland as of this writing).
This article can only touch on these issues. I invite my colleagues to flesh out some of these points (and of course to disagree with me if they see fit).