How should universities deal with their racist past?

In 1918, even before the guns on the Western Front fell silent, reacting to both the Flexner Report of 1910 on medical education in the United States and Canada and the demands from the veterans of the trenches, Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, expelled Ethelbert Bartholomew and six other medical students.

None had a questionable academic record. Indeed, before Bartholomew left, the dean of the medical school gave him a letter attesting to his fine academic standing.

Why, then, were these students expelled?

The answer is why, in the first-year medical school curriculum, Professor Jenna Healey, Hannah Chair in the History Medicine, is teaching a new module, “Who Gets to be a Doctor”, that will examine medical education and African Canadians. For, Bartholomew and the six other students were expelled because of the colour of their skin – and for almost five decades, Queen’s medical school did not admit a single African Canadian.

The records that told of this stain on the university’s history came to light after the hundred-year limitation expired and they could be examined.

“We didn’t know about this history until a part-time PhD student named Edward Thomas studied the archival documents that had been sealed for a hundred years. It came as quite a shock. Even more shocking was to discover that the motion that allowed the expulsions was still on the books,” says Associate Professor of Medicine and Director of Diversity and Equity Mala Joneja.

Thomas’ research showed that Canadian Great War veterans did not want to be treated by “negro doctors”, to use the nomenclature of the day – and that the spots in the medical school were being opened for white students.

He also found that Queen’s University was falling in line with the American Medical Association’s scheme of ranking medical schools. Within months of expelling the students and instituting the ban, the association raised Queen’s ranking from a ‘C’ to a ‘B’. The ranking system was based on criteria derived from Abraham Flexner’s report funded by the Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations.

“The Flexner Report essentially set new standards for medical education across North America. It made the medical profession more elite. It changed the requirements for the degree. And, as a result, many schools that had been educating women and black students closed,” says Healey.

Following the ideology of the day, Flexner wrote that the “practice of the Negro doctor will be limited to his own race” and the white doctors should treat white patients.

Instructive difference

The differences between how Queen’s University dealt with its past history of racial discrimination and the raucous debates that have occurred across the United States about, for example, the renaming of the residential college named after John C Calhoun at Yale University and the presence of memorials to Confederate generals such as Robert E Lee, are instructive.

At Yale, the debate about renaming Calhoun College began in the wake of the killings of nine African Americans at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015 when Yale’s president, Peter Salovey, asked how the university should respond.

Quickly, many students argued that the college, which was named for a prominent defender of slavery, should be renamed; by contrast, many alumni who had been resident at the college opposed the change.

Arguing that simply renaming the college would “obscure the legacy of slavery rather than address it,” Salovey decided to retain the name. Following criticism in the New York Times and pushed by a petition signed by almost 400 professors, Salovey struck a commission to give guidance on how to judge if a name should be changed.

The commission noted that between 2014 and 2016, names associated with white supremacists and Ku Klux Klan members were removed from buildings at Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Oregon and Georgetown University, where there were two buildings named after founders who raised the funds to found the university by selling 272 slaves.

While deciding to keep the name, Amherst College, one of American’s most liberal Liberal Arts colleges, dropped its ‘Lord Jeff’ sports mascot. It was named after Lord Jeffrey Amherst who supported using bacteriological warfare during the Pontiac Rebellion in 1763 by issuing smallpox infected blankets to native bands.

The commission’s report details Calhoun’s racist history, including his defence of slavery on the floor of the United States Senate in 1837, saying that slavery was “a positive good”, and his rejection of the Declaration of Independence’s opening words, “All men are created equal”, as well as his role in the expulsion of Native Americans to lands on the western side of the Mississippi river.

It then lays out a series of principles to guide consideration of renaming, including: “Is a principle legacy of the namesake fundamentally at odds with the mission of the university?”

To avoid the charge of presentism, the question must be asked, “Was the relevant principal legacy significantly contested in the time and place in which the namesake lived?” How important was the namesake’s personal contribution to the university? In addition, the commission said that removal of a name should not lead to the erasure of the embarrassing history.

Working with these guidelines, an advisory group reported in January 2017 that John C Calhoun’s name should be removed from the college. A month later, President Salovey announced that the college would be renamed after Grace Murray Hopper, who took her PhD in mathematics at Yale in 1934 and went on to do pathbreaking work in computers for the US Navy, rising to become a rear admiral.

Public apology

Queen’s University acted much more quickly. Within months of Thomas making his research public, a motion was brought to the university’s senate, which on 16 April 2018 issued a public apology.

At the medical school graduation a few months later, Maria Bartholomew received a posthumous degree for her great uncle, who, she told the Globe and Mail, had grown up in Trinidad and had come to Canada to study medicine at Queen’s.

It “cast a shadow over a generation” of her family, she said. On 30 October 2018, the motion formally removing the ban passed unanimously and a public apology was made to Bartholomew’s son.

Sometime in the next few weeks, in their class on professionalism, the incoming medical school class at Queen’s will turn to the “Who Gets to be a Doctor” module. “Three hours may not sound like a lot, but in the medical curriculum it is,” says Healey. “The module begins with a series of background readings about what happened in 1918 and stories of the men affected by the ban.”

The following morning, there are two hours of classes and workshops. In the workshops, the students work through four case studies. The first focuses on Queen’s University in the 1880s when it was one of the first medical schools in Ontario to admit women and then decided to expel them. The second deals with the 1918 ban on African Canadians. The third focuses on the post-1965 period when the ban on African Canadians was no longer followed but asks what structural and-or social barriers still existed.

“The final case study looks at the current state of medical education in Ontario. We want students to reflect on what remaining barriers, both explicit and implicit, exist and what they as future leaders in the profession can do to address them,” says Healey.

Wrestling with a racist past

Queen’s University is not the only institution in Canada to have wrestled with its racist past or the recognition that monuments to individuals now seen as racist are out of step with liberal democratic values.

In 2017, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau removed the name of Sir Hector-Louis Langevin from the building in which the prime minister’s office is located because Langevin was the principal architect of the Residential School system that over almost a hundred years saw 150,000 native children taken from their families and raised in church-run schools approved by the federal government of Canada under the Indian Act.

Within days of the Charlottesville ‘Unite the Right’ rally, the Hudson’s Bay Company removed a plaque on the wall outside its flagship store in Montreal that said that after fleeing the United States at the end of the Civil War, Confederate President Jefferson Davis had lived in a house at that location.

In 2018, responding to complaints by the Mi’kmaq people, Halifax removed a statue to Lord Cornwallis because of his 1749 proclamation that set a bounty on Mi’kmaq scalps.

And, this past June, Montreal changed Amherst street to Atateken Street, a Kanesatake word meaning ‘a group of people or nations sharing common values’.