Today's New York Times has an article about an Italian-American group suing Columbia for what the group claims is misuse of a donation made in the 1920s. The legal merits of the case seem awfully thin--the suit is brought by descendents of the original donors and there appears to be no money left to misspend--but I'm interested in what the case says about the extremely limited, even ghettoized understanding of "Italian culture" advanced by the aggrieved descendents.
The case concerns a large, beautiful building (now landmarked) built in the 1920s by a group of Italian-Americans and Italian immigrants and donated to Columbia to support the study of Italian culture. According to the Times, "For decades, the house served as a hub for Italian scholarship and community at Columbia. The university's Italian department resided in the building. A donated collection of some 20,000 volumes of Italian literature lined the shelves." Now, however, the Italian department is housed elsewhere, there's no longer an Italian cultural student group, and the 20,000 books are housed in the main library.
But the building is still used to support Italian scholarship--in fact, it's now owned by the Italian government: by the 1990s the building needed millions of dollars' worth of renovations, so Italy purchased the building, paid for the renovations, and then gave Columbia a 500-year lease on the place. It now houses the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America, "[h]alf of [whose] board of guarantors are appointed by the university and half by the Italian government."
And yes, you guessed it: even though the building is jointly run by Columbia and by actual Italians, and it exists to support and promote the work of Italian scholars and scholars of Italy, that isn't Italian enough for the donor descendents: in their suit, they claim that Columbia "owe[s] a fiduciary duty of obedience to the donor families to ensure that La Casa is used to diffuse Italian history, culture, art and literature to promote the educational and spiritual uplift of Italians in America." Instead, they charge, the building has become an "enclave for Columbia staffers and traveling European academics, including many in disciplines wholly unrelated to Italian history and culture."
To the extent that the complaint is about a reorientation away from undergraduates, the donor descendents have a partial point: the Italian Academy's activities aren't aimed primarily at undergraduates, though their schedule of events from the past few years does include regular public lectures on topics in Italian culture, readings of Italian poems in translation, and concerts of Italian music (and the Italian Department's undergraduate homepage publicizes those events).
But although the donor descendents might reasonably think that this isn't what their ancestors had in mind in the 1920s and 1930s, it's equally reasonable to think that their ancestors would have been thrilled that, eighty years on, Italy and Italian Americans don't need a separate building, library, or advocacy group to celebrate their cultural achievements. In the early twentieth century, Italian Americans were still a ghettoized and despised ethnic group. It makes sense that an immigrant organization would wish to instill pride in its sons and daughters by promoting the glorious achievements of the Old Country in ages past. But in the early twenty-first century--seriously, is there any non-English-speaking country that Ivy League students want to visit more than Italy? Majoring in Italian--like majoring in French or art history--is understood as signalling someone's membership in the elite.
Surely an immigrant group has arrived once that's the case--and once the study of Italy and Italian culture isn't limited to ancient Rome and Renaissance Florence. Isn't the opportunity to learn about (and from) twenty-first-century Italian neuroscientists, sociologists, and industrial designers a real recognition of the creativity and innovation of the Italian people?
Well, you'd think.