Friday, August 24, 2012

Ethnic pride group requests greater ghettoization

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.


Comrade Physioprof said...

Courts are generally loath to get involved in trying to micromanage the usage of bequests like that decades after the bequeather has died. So I seriously doubt this case is going anywhere. And yeah, it is mind-boggling that the plaintiffs give a flying fucke about this.

Susan said...

Some years ago my church wanted to change the use of a major bequest from a century earlier. We brought it to the probate court, and there was a hearing, and the representative of the Secretary of State (who oversees probate in that state) commented that it was amazing we had been following the bequest so faithfully so long, and that our transition made eminent sense.

i said...

@Comrade Physioprof: What do you think bequeathers make bequests for, after all? The whole point of a bequest is to micromanage something decades and centuries after you have died. To accept such a donation and then not to uphold the terms of the agreement is fraudulent. Universities know this, and are free to turn down funds that come with strings they don't like. All of us who give to charitable organizations should give a flying fucke about whether our money is being used in the way we were promised it would be.

Flavia said...

i: the key elements here are "micromanage" and "decades after the bequeather has died" (as Susan's example also shows). There's no indication that the original donation came with specific strings other than that the building be used to promote the study of Italian culture, and these descendents are, at best, the grandchildren of the donors, so there's no reason to think they have special insight into their ancestor's intentions beyond whatever may have been written down (see the law professor's comment at the end of the article).

As I say, however, it's not the legal case per se that interests me here.

i said...

I'm actually not that interested in this case either, in which the changes Columbia has made do not seem that extreme. But I am interested in the issue of informed giving, and of gifts being respected.

"Micromanage" and "decades after the bequeather has died" are very important and I stand by them. I've been, let's say, connected to both sides of it. Universities of course want gifts with as few strings attached as possible. Makes life easier for them.

Donors do not necessarily want this. So, first, the micromanaging. Donors, at least smart donors, don't just throw money at a university and hope it's used for something good. The point is to influence university policy. To influence what's taught and what's researched. (Don't ask me what donors to football team locker rooms are all about, I don't know.) I can't say much more about this in the open, but let's just say I've recently been party to a case of donors using a substantial donation to not only fund a faculty line but to force it to be filled right away. This is in a field which, though deeply important to knowledge over all, is not the kind of thing university admin get hot and bothered about. These were informed donors, they knew how to tie strings around the money, and the result will be a net gain for both the students and the research community in question. Yes, there are occasionally wacky donors, but that's when universities are smart to say no to the money. But it's not weird or wrong to expect to use major donations to affect university policy. A donor would be terribly unthoughtful not to.

Next -- "decades after the bequeather has died." Bequeathers tend to die. This is the point -- especially if they're leaving the donation by will. I don't know the case of Susan's church, but it may have been completely in the wrong for all I know. (No offense meant to Susan -- we just don't know the deets.) Why should the amount of time from the bequest be assumed to make it irrelevant, null and void? Some of the Oxford colleges are based on endowments that were given hundreds of years ago. Someone making a major gift to the kind of institution that tends to last for a very long time, like, ahem, a university, has a right to expect that the life of their donation will be measured in centuries, not in decades.

I think there are situations where there is a strong case to be made for some change, for example, when an institution was originally assumed to exclude a certain group of people and must now change with the times. And again, I don't think what happened at Columbia is that extreme. I went and looked at the current fellows, and there really is a lot of Italian studies stuff. (Though defining "Italian," for at least some of the fellowships, as country of origin rather than topic of study is actually narrower and more "ghettoized" than the previous case.) Then again, when you look more broadly at the way North American foreign language and lit departments have been deliberately eroded over the past few decades, you can't be that sanguine about the way resources originally meant to support humane studies in Italian have been diverted to science. (Much as I love science.)

Withywindle said...

Columbia is notorious for being even worse than the average among universities in "rededicating" any money in its hands for whatever it wants, bugger the desires of the bequestor. I know at least one person who made sure that the bequest to Columbia had outside administrators who could remove the money if Columbia started playing games. So I would have a meta-suspicion in all circumstances that Columbia is in the wrong, and whoever sues them is in the right.

Flavia said...

i: what I meant is that I'm not especially interested in the legal aspects of donor/recipient rights, either in this case or more generally. (For the purposes of this post, anyway! it's an interesting subject in its own right, and I appreciate your sharing your experiences, tangential as the subject is to my immediate interests here.)

I'm interested in what I guess you'd call the identity politics of this case, and the ways in which they narrowly constrict academic and intellectual inquiry.

i said...

Oh, I see! But I must confess I was confused by your reading of the identity politics in this case. Yes, Italian-Americans were looked down upon at the start of the century, but I suspect the founding of the Casa Italiana is more in line with other foreign language and culture houses at Columbia, such as the Deutsches Haus (founded 1911), the Casa Hispánica (1920) and the Maison Francaise (1913). I don't think it's at all about the ghettoization of an oppressed minority, but about the celebration of an Old World cultural tradition. Note that NYU also has a Maison Francaise, a Deutsches Haus, and a Casa Italiana, all founded in the latter half of the twentieth century -- the Casa Italiana in 1990, of all things. In other words, I think it's about translatio studii and translatio imperii, not, or not just, about rescuing the reputation of an immigrant group.

The ironic bit? The Italian Academy website says that "The Fellowship Program at the Italian Academy focuses on issues relating to cultural identity, cultural transmission, and cultural memory."

Doctor Cleveland said...

That article was actually very poorly written, making the plaintiff's absurd case sound less ridiculous then it is. But if you follow the links embedded in the story, it's pretty clear that Columbia is following the terms of the bequest very closely. The "irony" here being that Columbia is being sued by a group with no legitimate standing, the "Italic Institute" to make them do something they have been doing uninterruptedly.

But since commenters want to talk about meta-issues and meta-suspicions, let me say this: the idea that a bequest's use should never change at all is simply a refusal to accept reality. Time passes, and it matters.

If a donor gave money to endow a medical-school chair in psychiatry in 1922, that donor likely explicitly or implicitly expected the holder of the chair to be an orthodox Freudian. If you're hiring someone for that chair, you're likely to hire someone who does cognitive psychology, neurological research, or other brain-based studies. You're not going to hire a strictly orthodox Freudian, because that orthodoxy is no longer seen as medically valid. And you should not. Having someone peddle outdated quackery which the rest of the medical school knows to be outdated is a betrayal of the university's founders.

You don't betray the university to obey the donor. You follow the bequest in ways that fit the larger mission. That means, at a minimum, paying attention to the changing standards in a field of academic study.

That certainly goes with identity politics and ethnic studies. Columbia is being sued, in effect, for teaching Italian history and culture rather than for teaching a tiny advocacy group's version of that subject. And even if the tiny advocacy group were right (as in this case they seem not to be) about how that subject was once taught, should that require a subject to be taught in a time capsule, as if decades of political and intellectual history had not passed?

A chair in Women's Studies endowed in 1980 might have been intended by the original donor to go to a second-wave feminist, and the original occupant of the chair would almost certainly be one. Can the donor sue if the professorship is given in 2012 to a feminist scholar of a much later generation who deviates from the orthodoxies of 2012? Or, perhaps, to a leading scholar of women's issues who happens to be a man? Should the donor, or the donor's distant descendants, be allowed to assert "rules" that were never written down?

Likewise, if someone endowed a DuBois Chair in African-American history circa 1978 for a scholar with famous radical commitments, that donor might assume that everyone subsequently appointed to the chair would be likewise radical. And if that chair went to a brilliant historian of the Great Migration who happened to be a political conservative?

Withywindle said...

It all sounds very living-constitution-ish--and the administration gets decide how to follow the spirit of the law! Bah, humbug.

I recollect being told about some endowed lecture by a history professor at Cambridge or Oxford, where the lecturer researched the source of the funds of the endowed lecture itself. It turned out that they had been meant for prayers for the soul of Queen Margaret Tudor (or some such), and had been repurposed after the Reformation for what she had clearly meant to ask for, an endowed history lecture. The lecturer ended by advising his audience to pray for the soul of Queen Margaret. Oh, I hope I'm remembering this story accurately, and that it's true.

Britta said...

I think, and perhaps what Flavia, you were interested in, in part, is the growing separation between Italian and Italian-American identity, to the point where extensive Italian/American scholarly exchange is no longer seen, and probably rightly so, as reflecting "Italian culture" as recognizable to Italian-Americans, (and this is probably more so in the opposite direction). I would imagine that Columbia and the Italian government felt they were honoring not only the spirit but the letter of the original benefactors' wishes, much more so than if they used the building to store someone's dusty book collection and to host "Italian night" once a month.

It would be amusing to picture a board meeting attended by Italian government officials, academics, and members of the Italic Institute though.

Flavia said...


Yes! Thank you! That is, in fact, one of my chief interests here. It's hard not to read the Italic Institute's lawsuit as about Italian Americans feeling aggrieved that actual Italians (and the non-Italians who research and live there) might have a different experience of Italy, and of Italian-ness, than they themselves do.

Because the fact is, the actual country of Italy, and actual Italians, are not at this present moment (and probably never were), whatever the sentimental third-generation Italian American imagines them to have been when he fantasizes about The Old Country. Italian-Americana is not really Italian, and with each passing generation the two are even less closely linked.

(For the record, I am myself a late-generation Italian American, as is my spouse, though only one of us was raised culturally "Italian American.")