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Gifts to universities come with moral strings attached

Who was Thomas J. Watson?

When earlier this summer I saw "The Corporation," a documentary critique of one of the dominant institutions in modern times, I learned some new - and unpleasant - things about the namesake of one of Brown's most prominent buildings.

Thomas J. Watson, whose name is now emblazoned on our Center for Information Technology (otherwise known as the CIT) founded the company that became IBM, one of the dominant corporations of the twentieth century. Under his leadership, IBM flourished. It also colluded with the Nazis from their rise and well into World War II.

In exchange for handsome profit, Thomas J. Watson helped supply Hitler's regime with a then-sophisticated punch card technology - one that proved vital for the implementation of the Holocaust.

Watson was by no means unique among American businessmen for his close and profitable ties with Nazi Germany. Other notable names in this group include the automobile manufacturer Henry Ford and Prescott Bush, the father and grandfather of two later presidents.

What does distinguish Watson, however, is the sheer devastation directly wrought by his actions.

According to Edwin Black, whose 2001 book "IBM and the Holocaust" brought attention to the mid-century misdeeds of one of America's most important corporations, the use of IBM-supplied Hollerith punch card machines that tabulated census data and identified Jews and other target groups showed a striking correlation with Holocaust mortality rates.

In France, where the Hollerith system was sabotaged by members of the Resistance, Jews suffered a mortality rate of 25 percent. In Holland, however, where the population showed sometimes violent opposition to the Holocaust but the Hollerith system was left intact, nearly 70 percent of Jews were killed. As Black demonstrates, IBM's technology was indeed lethal.

Watson knew that the punch card system could be used for ill, even for genocide, and yet he continued to sell the machines to Germany when public ties with Hitler became unsavory, only covertly through an IBM subsidiary called Dehomag. The sale of the machines continued even after the passage of the Nuremburg Laws of 1935, which openly discriminated against Jews.

For this support, Watson in 1937 received from Hitler an Eagle with Star medal, which was returned only at the outbreak of the war.

But IBM continued to profit from its Dehomag operation throughout World War II. The company prospered, and when Thomas J. Watson reluctantly retired from its helm in 1956, his son, Brown class of 1937, was named his successor. In later years, generous donations to the university from Watson Jr. would bring his name to Brown's Institute for International Studies and his father's to the CIT.

At a time when Brown has a Slavery and Justice Committee investigating the University's historical ties to slavery surely it is also worth asking what it means for the school to remember and honor people such as Thomas J. Watson.

Other universities have reckoned with such issues. In a recent prominent case, Harvard University this summer returned a $2.5 million donation from the president of the United Arab Emirates after a student and faculty-led protest against the Sheik's alleged ties to a think tank that accused the U.S. army of perpetrating the attacks of September 11 and that espoused other virulent viewpoints. In contrast, Columbia and Georgetown universities have kept their respective gifts from Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Nahayan.

Certain major donations to Brown University pose similarly complex moral questions. John Brown, the university's namesake, was a slave trader, Watson supplied punch card technology to the Nazis and Alfred Taubman, whose name adorns Brown's Center for Public Policy, recently served jail time. A former chairman of the auction house Sotheby's, he was convicted of colluding with archrival Christie's to fix the prices of fine art.

These are historical facts, and important parts of these men's legacies. Members of a university that has been given money to honor the memories of these men must think long and hard about how to do so in such a way that does not ignore their decidedly dubious pasts.

Julia Kay '06 is a new contributor to these pages.


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