Attending a 9 a.m. lecture. Setting up a table at the Posting Wall. Printing out a last-minute essay. Gathering for a student organization meeting after hours. As students at the University of Michigan, we spend so much of our time in Angell Hall, but how many of us actually know who James Burrill Angell is and what his legacy entails? Learned pieces of the University’s history seem to be met exclusively with shock and disappointment from students, faculty and alumni, and my moral outrage is growing weary. As a third-year student, each passing term’s revelations have left me with more to consider in regards to my relationship to this institution and its roots. I feel tainted with remorse for the countless survivors of sexual misconduct denied their due justice. I stand in solidarity with the unmet needs of the Graduate Employees’ Organization and the Lecturers’ Employee Organization from an inadequate reopening plan. I remain appalled by the historically racist and exploitative practices of the Order of Angell, an exclusive senior honor society that disbanded just this past spring. Most of all, I am frustrated at the lack of accountability taken by the administration to address an imperfect history of the Leaders and the Best.
Over the course of the past month, members from my organization South Asian Awareness Network came together with organizers from the United Asian American Organizations, Central Student Government and LSA Student Government to discuss the legacy of former University President James B. Angell and the memorialization of his name to one of the highest-traffic student buildings on campus. Each week’s meetings worked toward brainstorming and planning a response to appropriately address his legacy. Here’s what we came up with: a CSG resolution draft calling for the removal of Angell’s name from the University building, a teach-in and dialogue surrounding the present-day implications of Angell’s history, and a cultural fashion show on the steps of Angell Hall in celebration and reclamation of a space that the late president himself may not have expected our presence in.
For context, Angell held a 38-year term as the president of the University and was a nationally recognized leader in higher education, bringing in record number enrollments and increasing accessibility for many students. In addition to his presidency, Angell served as a U.S. ambassador to China during which he re-negotiated the Burlingame Treaty. While this treaty endorsed immigration at the high point of U.S.-China relations, the Treaty of Angell recognized the U.S. government’s power to regulate the immigration of Chinese laborers due to domestic economic tension. As American Culture professor Ian Shin explained during the mid-November teach-in, Angell signed on to this treaty out of a sense of public duty as opposed to actual support for exclusion. Regardless of his initial hesitations to sign, the Treaty of Angell paved the way for the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, one of the most racist immigration bills in American history. Regardless of his intent to bring students on campus together, the secret society Order of Angell — formerly known as Michigamua — eventually became known for its profane appropriation of Native American culture and its notoriously racist and elitist nature. President James B. Angell may have been a moral centrist, but the consequences of his neutrality leave a permanent mark on the University’s history. Is this someone worth memorializing?
On Nov. 17, 2021, CSG’s ongoing resolution passed for the renaming of the University building Angell Hall and Angell Scholar Award. While I consider this a necessary step in the right direction, I can’t help but admit to a qualm I’ve had since the teach-in. As Professor Shin encouraged us to consider the various ways we may address the problematic legacies of historical figures, he gave an example of a previous name removal at the University: the North University Building was originally named after University President Clarence Cook (C.C.) Little in 1968, up until 2018. Little held a brief, unaccomplished term as University president from 1925 to 1929. He was a geneticist who actively promoted eugenics, the sterilization of the “unfit,” and called for immigration restriction and anti-miscegenation laws. My first thought: Why the hell did the Board of Regents name a building after this man 40 years later? My second thought: How is this the first time I’m hearing about Little? The removal of his name not only erased Little’s contentious legacy for students admitted after 2018, but it also dissolved any accountability the University had in perpetuating his harmful ideas — even if the ideas were representative of a historical era. That’s where the latter portion of the approved resolution comes in.
CSG Assembly Resolution 11-048 also urged the provost to implement a semester-long course to teach students about “the racist foundations (upon) which the University of Michigan was built.” Though necessary, the removal of Little and Angell’s names from University buildings is a very preliminary response toward a deeply institutional issue that requires much more substantive redress. We’ve been taught to be critical of our institutions, yet our university does not actively engage in its own history. The academic course proposed in the resolution would require the University to deeply consider its role in historical injustices, and for our sake, I hope they do not take this lightly. As students at the University, we deserve transparency from the administration, but our demands only go as far as the actions taken by the University to address them. My fellow organizers and I came together to put pressure on our school’s lack of accountability, and the passage of this resolution is a small victory in a much larger movement. Continuation of our work, however, depends on our administration’s admission to their oppressive history and commitment to transformative justice. U-M administration, can we count on you?
MiC Columnist Easheta Shah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.