University News

Columbus change spurs response

By
Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The faculty’s decision last week to rename Columbus Day “Fall Weekend” on the University calendar has garnered more attention both locally and nationally than the average code revision, with Providence mayor David Cicilline ’83 and Rush Limbaugh, the high-profile conservative pundit, among those decrying the move. 

Though the faculty’s vote last Tuesday seemed to reflect student opinion — a recent Herald poll suggested that the majority of Brown students disapproved of continuing to call the holiday Columbus Day — the resolution has prompted a wave of criticism from city leaders, who said the move was hypocritical and disrespectful to Italian-Americans.

“Brown University made itself an example to the nation by carefully exploring its ties to the slave trade and using that process to promote greater understanding,” Cicilline said in a press release Thursday. But the decision to “simply erase the celebration of an incredibly significant moment in world history and Italian-American culture for the sake of political correctness does just the opposite,” he said.

Cicilline added that “as an Italian-American,” he took “particular offense” to the decision.
Cicilline’s communications director, Rhoades Alderson, told The Herald Monday that the mayor believes the role of higher education is to “get at the truth” of “complicated parts of our nation’s history.”

Brown “set the standard for doing that” with its work exploring its historical ties to the slave trade, Alderson said, but Cicilline felt the Columbus Day decision was done “in the opposite spirit.”

“It was just kind of deleting (the event) from history, rather than using it to promote understanding,” Alderson said.

Cicilline was not the only one upset with the faculty’s decision. Members of local Italian-American organizations expressed their dissatisfaction in a Providence Journal article last week. The Italian-American community has long regarded Columbus — an Italian explorer who made his first voyage to the Americas in 1492 — as an important historical figure and cultural icon.

“Columbus was the one that opened up this part of the world to Western civilization,” Raymond Dettore, Jr., former president of the Italo-American Club in Providence, told the Journal.

Anthony Baratta, president of the Commission for Social Justice of the group Sons of Italy, told the Journal that Columbus Day is a “patriotic” holiday. “I don’t know why the faculty would have chosen this route,” he said.

Bob Kerr, a columnist for the Journal, said Monday that he thought the faculty’s decision was “a little detached” from the local community, especially considering that a large number of Providence’s residents are of Italian descent. Kerr wrote an opinion piece for the Journal on Friday, headlined “Different ways of looking at the same guy,” mocking the measure.

“I didn’t think it was a great decision,” he said yesterday. “I’m amazed that people at Brown wouldn’t realize, ‘Whoa, wait a minute, this is going to make us look a little silly.'”
The story quickly reached the national media. On Thursday, two days after the faculty’s vote, radio personality Rush Limbaugh attacked the decision.
Referring to Brown students who supported the faculty’s decision as “spoiled, rotten little skulls full of mush with brains that represent the arid expanse of the Sahara Desert,” Limbaugh said the change was “idiocy.”

“Next they’re going to come along and get rid of Halloween,” he said.
The Associated Press and Fox News were among the national media organizations to pick up the story.

Meanwhile, most Brown students continued to support the faculty’s move, despite the way it was received outside College Hill.

“I definitely support the decision,” Avi Kenny ’11 said. Columbus is “undeserving of a holiday,” he said.

“What they teach us in elementary school is misleading — hero worshipping,” said Josh Marcotte ’11, calling the faculty’s decision “a progressive step.”

Araceli Mendez ’12 said she too supported the change, but understood why some groups, such as Italian-Americans, might see it as offensive. “It’s not that complicated of an issue, but I understand where they’re coming from,” she said.

Michael Hogan ’11 said he generally approved of the decision to rename Columbus Day, but expressed some concern about the precedent such a move might set. “Are we going to stop Presidents Day because Thomas Jefferson had slaves?” he asked.

The faculty vote was preceded by months of pressure from a small group of students who wanted the University to stop recognizing Columbus Day. The students had originally proposed that the University take a different day off, but the months of dialogue ended with the proposal to change only the name of the holiday, in part because some faculty and staff wanted the University’s October holiday to coincide with that of local schools.

Columbus Day, observed on the second Monday in October, has been a federal holiday
 since 1971.