In 2015, Columbia University began a project to examine its historical ties to slavery. The project was commissioned by President Lee Bollinger, who approved the initial funding. The University and its president have received glowing coverage in prominent news outlets lauding the initiative and support for communities who had experienced injustices. Coverage of the initiative however, omits the something important; inaction and procrastination on the part of Columbia University, in regard to the use of slave-owning Samuel Bard’s name across the University including the Bard Hall Medical campus. Extensive documentation details Samuel Bard as having three enslaved persons in his household in the Census of 1790, seven in 1800, and eight in 1810. The necessity for swift change had been made blatantly clear.
In the five years since Bollinger’s project debuted, Columbia had done nothing about the findings, in contrast to every other Ivy League school that has looked into its slavery ties. Universities including Brown, Harvard, MIT, and Georgetown all underwent major changes and offered varying forms of retribution to ensure the university’s efforts were legitimate. Bard Hall remains in the renaming stage.
In June of 2020, after years of internal strife and fear of retribution, Dr. Raymond Givens, MD, PhD associate director of the cardiac intensive care unit at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center, and a leading voice and activist among those calling for change within medicine reopened the well documented issue of Samuel Bard’s slave owning past before the University President’s attention.
Dr. Givens said, “As a black man, having to drop my son at the Bard Hall Nursery school stung. Black students and faculty continue to operate under the Bard name every day. Until George Floyd was murdered I was in fear of jeopardizing my career, although I can no longer accept inaction in the wake of a movement reminding us to ‘Say their names’.”
After contacting President Bollinger in addition to the Provost Ira Katznelson, the chairman of medicine, dean of the school of medicine, board of trustees, compliance office, executive vice president of university life, associate general counsel, chief general counsel, office of equal opportunity and affirmative action, and the university senate, Dr. Givens’ concerns were met by deaf ears, and empty assurances; feeling as though he was being silenced.
In July of 2020, President Bollinger offered a generic response as he emailed the whole of the school failing to acknowledge the issue of Samuel Bard, but guaranteeing the University’s commitment to diversity. The majority of the message contained a list of on campus resources available to students and faculty in addition to a section of resources and research collaborations to be used to learn further about racial injustice. President Bollinger does not offer any attribution at any point and further shuns Dr. Givens efforts, offering anything but professional courtesy as he continued to ignore and indirectly address Dr. Givens.
After demanding that further action be taken, on August 28th of that same year, President Bollinger announced that Columbia University would go ahead and rename Bard Hall, but failed to detail any concrete plans for doing so. He omitting a timeline, a list of people who would be involved in the renaming process, and initiatives to be taken to ensure the chosen name properly represented the affected demographic in a manner that acknowledges the University’s commitment to diversity. President Bollinger as well failed to include any mention of the extensive intellectual contributions of Dr. Givens in an attempt to silence the streams of bravery Dr. Givens exuded when spearheading the entirety of this grievance.
Determined to be treated with respect and sick of being ignored, Dr. Givens filed a grievance report with the University’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (EOAA) on the grounds of being a Black staff member who was experiencing prejudice but was unable to gain assistance on that front. Dr Givens then attempted to speak before the University senate but could not access formal information on how to do so.
Even though there have been several articles written in various media dating back to August 2020 that reports Columbia’s intent to change the name, as of today, Bard Hall remains, and Dr. Givens has not been officially given any credit for moving the needle as far as the university did go. His hope, is not for credit or accolades, but for a real commitment to changing the name, and an acknowledgment that Columbia still has some way to go before it lives up to its claims of diversity and inclusion.