In 2006, Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, published a report on the university’s ties to slavery. A decade ago, the university established the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice. Following Brown’s lead, a large group of other colleges and univerisities – including Harvard, Georgetown, and the University of Virginia – have created similar commissions examining not only ties to slavery but the history of anti-Black racism on campus.
Now, Lee C. Bollinger, president of Columbia University in New York City, has announced the creation of the President’s Commission on the History of Race and Racism at Columbia University. This faculty-led entity will assess and establish guidelines for existing and future symbols and representations at Columbia, placing them in historical context and their relationship to racism, guided by a commitment both to historical accuracy and to an inclusive campus environment.
“Central to Columbia’s ongoing commitment to antiracism is a thoughtful and contextualized reassessment of what and whom we commemorate,” said President Bollinger. “This commission will guide critical decision-making as we work to make sure that our campuses reflect our values and offer welcoming spaces to students, faculty, staff, and alumni.”
The commission will be led by co-directors Mabel O. Wilson, the Nancy and George Rupp Professor of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation and a professor in African American and African Diasporic Studies, and Ira Katznelson, the Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History.
“The built environment shapes the daily experiences of everyone on campus. Whether or not we are conscious of it, buildings, artworks, and their placement convey narratives about power, both by presence and omission,” said Professor Wilson. “Revisiting our symbols and their meanings will help build a more inclusive and welcoming campus.”
Professor Wilson joined the faculty at Columbia University in 2007. She is the co-editor of Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History from the Enlightenment to the Present (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020). She holds a master of architecture degree from Columbia University and a Ph.D. in American studies from New York University.