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Portraits of Diversity

In the wake of controversies over Confederate monuments and the names of buildings, Edward C. Halperin explores the best way to capture history on a college or university's walls.

July 6, 2020
 
 
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The corridors and lecture halls of colleges and universities and their academic medical centers are traditionally adorned with oil portraits portraying former presidents, chancellors, deans, academic department chairs, professors and other notables. Dressed in academic gowns, or in starched white laboratory coats or surgical scrub suits, they appear with their hands resting on a stack of books, a microscope or some other object used to indicate their scholarly interest. Looking wise, thoughtful and distinguished, the portraits stare down at passersby walking through hallways or students seated in lecture halls. In the vast majority of cases, the individuals portrayed are gray-haired white men.

People have raised their voices against building names and statues at higher education institutions around the country. New Jersey’s Monmouth University will remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from a campus building. Monmouth’s president referred to Wilson as “a controversial politician who never actually set foot in the current building.” Wilson, who served as U.S. president from 1913 to 1921, supported segregation in the federal government, denied admission of Black students to Princeton University when he served as that institution’s president, and commended the Ku Klux Klan.

In June of 2018, the leadership of one of Harvard Medical School’s teaching hospitals, the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, announced that 31 gold-framed portraits of former medical school department chairs would be removed from the hospital’s amphitheater and dispersed to departmental conference rooms and lobbies as part of a broader diversity initiative. Thirty of the 31 portraits are of white males.

“I have watched the faces of individuals as they have come into the amphitheater,” said Elizabeth Nabel, M.D., president of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “I have watched them look at the walls. I read on their faces, ‘Interesting, but I am not represented here.’ That got me thinking that maybe it’s time that we think about respecting our past in a different way … We need to make sure that our culture creates a sense of belonging for all.”

A year after the portraits were removed, the former dean of Harvard Medical School, Jeffrey Flier, M.D., published an op-ed in The Boston Globe criticizing the removal of the portraits. “Unlike disputed portraits and statuary related to slavery and the Civil War, these men [portrayed in the portraits] made contributions to medicine and research that stand up well to current scrutiny,” Flier wrote. “Removing all the historic amphitheater portraits -- leaving bare walls in their place for the past year -- won’t advance diversity. What might? An array of art that reflects today’s rapidly changing physician leadership, while recognizing essential but less male-dominated health-related professions, such as nursing and social work.” Flier also observed that many of his colleagues, who shared his sentiments, were afraid to speak up in defense of the portraits.

At New York Medical College, a member of the Touro College and University system, we have taken a distinctly different approach to concerns regarding portraits in our hallways and amphitheaters. NYMC was founded in 1860. When I arrived on campus in 2012, the college had 30 oil portraits of the institution’s key luminaries hanging on its walls. Twenty-nine were of white men. My judgment was the same as Flier’s: none of the distinguished physicians and scientists had done anything in their careers to warrant being removed from the walls. Rather than wring our hands about these oil portraits that might make some in our campus community feel uncomfortable or unwelcome, we promptly went about rectifying the gaps in the historical record were anyone to rely solely on the portraits as a source of information.

I am sure that most academic institutions, if they subject themselves to careful historical research, will be able to recapture a more diverse and inclusive history. No one is stopping us from augmenting the portraits on our university’s walls with other images that portray the full scope of our diverse institutional histories.

At NYMC, for example, we learned though research that New York State’s first African American female physician graduated from our college in the 1860s, as did one of the first female physicians in Canadian history. We learned about our first African American male medical school graduate in the 1880s and the creation of the scholarships specially designated for African American medical school applicants in the 1920s. Other notable African Americans in our institutional history were the first dean of a historically white-majority medical school, a pioneering female open-heart surgeon and member of the American College of Surgeons, and a decorated hero of the French military medical corps during World War I.

In the process, we discovered stories of virulent anti-Semitism directed against physicians in the first half of the 20th century and their heroic responses. We learned of pioneering female department chairs in the basic and clinical sciences in the early 20th century. We found out that our college had America’s first Nisei clinical department chair. Each of the stories was carefully researched and correlative illustrations were found. And for each one a display was hung equivalent in size to an oil portrait and side by side with our 30 existing paintings.

Removing Woodrow Wilson’s name from a university building illustrates the problem. As governor, Wilson appointed the first Jewish person to the New Jersey Supreme Court. As president, he appointed the first Jewish person to the U.S. Supreme Court. He lowered tariffs, created a graduated income tax to reform federal finances, created the Federal Reserve System and the Federal Trade Commission, signed the Clayton Antitrust Act, led America through World War I, and gave birth to the League of Nations. He was, however, a product of his upbringing in Virginia and Georgia. Was Wilson a racist? Yes. Did he accomplish great things? Yes. He was human. People are multidimensional, not one-dimensional.

Campuses that have statues in honor of Confederate generals or politicians and/or buildings named in their honor represent special cases deserving particular scrutiny. The majority of citizens believe that we should remove statues honoring people who engaged in armed insurrection against the lawful government of the U.S. and supported slavery. In dealing with those statues, we should solicit advice from historical experts who understand that judging a person of the past means looking at the big picture.

Broad-based conversations, including a role for public space utilization committees, must play a role in this debate. When such statues are removed and relocated and buildings are renamed, people of good will can create contextual descriptions to help us understand why our predecessors did what they did and how we might understand their behavior today. It is possible to create new building names, statues and monuments that more fully reflect the diversity of a higher education institution’s story.

In the same spirit, when you walk the corridors of New York Medical College and sit in our amphitheaters now, you are looked down upon by distinguished individuals in academic gowns and starched white coats. You are, however, also looked down upon by a rainbow of diversity in American higher education. Telling previously untold historical stories is, I submit, a far more fruitful way of dealing with any concerns about the portraits hanging on a college or university’s walls than removing portraits of physicians who did nothing during their lives that warrant them being removed. You don’t ignore a portion of your history. Rather, you strive to truthfully portray and contextualize all of it.

Bio

Edward C. Halperin, M.D., M.A., is chancellor and chief executive officer at New York Medical College, a member of the Touro College and University system. This essay represents his views and not those of the college.

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