Column: Dartmouth must remove Leon Black’s name

Published: 2/23/2021 10:30:12 PM
Modified: 2/23/2021 10:30:11 PM

The last two weeks of January were not good for the Dartmouth College brand. The good news for the college is that the debacle in athletics pushed the more virulent headline off the front page. What was that headline about? It was about changing the name of the Black Family Visual Arts Center, a very public and broadly used space.

That’s Leon Black, the billionaire CEO of Apollo Global Management and former Dartmouth trustee. The same Leon Black who maintained a long personal and business relationship with Jeffrey Epstein, the convicted sex offender and alleged sex trafficker who died in August 2019 at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York while awaiting trial. A relationship that continued well after Epstein’s 2008 guilty plea in Florida for soliciting a teenage girl for prostitution, which Black was well aware of. The New York Times reported that “Mr. Black believed that Mr. Epstein had ‘served his time’ for that case and deserved a second chance.”

We call upon the college to remove Black’s name, with or without his cooperation, from the visual arts center and to initiate a community-wide conversation about an appropriate renaming that demonstrates the college’s commitment to address its egregious history with gender and race issues.

Continuing to associate itself with Black — and thus Epstein — looks worse for Dartmouth than the fact that it had to reverse itself and reinstate five athletic teams after cutting them over the summer. Why? Because it highlights Dartmouth’s shameful record. The college’s 2020 Clery report (required annually of colleges and universities that receive federal funding) points out that gender-based violence continues to be alive and unwell on a campus where three former faculty members recently retired or resigned following allegations of sexual misconduct with their students and graduate assistants. The statistics for 2019 (the latest full year for reporting data) indicates that 71 cases were reported, but when one considers that only about 20% of incidents are ever reported, the numbers are likely much higher.

Even in 2020, when the campus population was reduced due to the pandemic, victims continued to seek counsel and support from members of the Dartmouth Community against Gender Harassment and Sexual Violence because of their fears of reprisal and harassment.

What, then, to do about Black’s tarnished brand?

Dartmouth could follow Apollo Global Management’s lead. As the Times reported, the multibillion-dollar investment management company paid an outside investigator to look into Black’s relationship with Epstein. That report concluded that Black paid Epstein $158 million for “legitimate” business and tax advice. But while it found no evidence of wrongdoing on Black’s part, the report’s findings caused friction on Apollo’s board and failed to mollify worried clients. Black then announced that he will step down as CEO in July, although he will remain chairman of the company’s board.

Leon Black’s brand has been damaged. Worse, the arts center building with his name on it represents an ever-present insult to all Dartmouth survivors — including the nine students who sued Dartmouth for enabling their professors’ abuses, the 65 victims who received a settlement from the class action, and the hundreds of other students who have endured sexual violence on campus, as its Clery reports show.

But what if Black himself were to ask Dartmouth to change the name of the building? What if, for example, a representative committee of students, alumni, faculty and staff were to suggest a new, more appropriate name? Then Black could take credit for wanting to help change the harmful culture at Dartmouth and create a campus safe from the degradation of gender-based violence. And it could be a demonstration of good faith on Dartmouth’s part, just as the decision to dissociate the college from the so-called “Indian symbol” was.

Black has also committed to donating $200 million to organizations and charities that combat sex trafficking and support victims of sexual abuse. Perhaps he would consider giving a tenth of that to his alma mater to work directly toward changing the culture of male primacy that feeds into the Clery statistics. If he did, he should insist that his gift be used as an add-on source of funds for dealing with the problem of sexual assault. Then they could not be used as a substitute in Dartmouth’s operating budget to pay for other unexpected challenges, such as reinstated sports teams. Black is known in the world of finance as a consummate dealmaker, so he and Dartmouth could likely find a way to agree.

It does not require imagination to presume that Black cares deeply about the reputation of his family. Nor should it require much to presume the same about the school for which he has been a trustee and generous benefactor. We can believe that he loves both.

In the end, we know this: The scourge of gender-based violence continues to exist on the Dartmouth campus nearly half a century after coeducation began. Two well-known brands — one an Ivy League institution and the other a Wall Street giant — have been badly hurt. At least one possible path to atonement exists.

The debacle with the varsity sports teams was a series of bad decisions. But if Dartmouth fails to demonstrate that it is serious about addressing gender-based violence, that would be a real crime.

That is the headline we must remember.

Stan Colla, Ruth Cserr, Roberta Millstein and Diana Whitney are members of the Dartmouth Community against Gender Harassment and Sexual Violence.

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