Bryn Mawr to reduce visibility of its 2nd president after reviewing her history of racism

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M. Carey Thomas, the second president of Bryn Mawr College, was a pioneer in women’s suffrage, but discriminated against Jewish and black people. The college is rethinking Thomas’ legacy.

In 1935, Bryn Mawr College named its original library and Great Hall meeting room for its second, and perhaps most influential, president, M. Carey Thomas, who had died that year.

A leading suffragist and champion of women’s rights, Thomas led the women’s college from 1894 to 1922, and was revered.

But in recent years, some on campus had begun to question her legacy, pointing to her unwillingness to admit black students or hire Jewish faculty. The controversy grew in the wake of last year’s deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., and as more campuses began to confront and re-examine current and past incidents of racism.

On Wednesday, Bryn Mawr announced that its trustees had adopted the recommendations of a campus panel and decided to give Thomas far less prominence on the Main Line campus, and among its awards and promotional materials. While her name won’t be physically stripped from the library, neither it nor the Great Hall will be referred to as Thomas on the college’s website, in printed materials, or in basic conversation.

Instead, they will be called the Old Library and the Great Hall, similar to their original names, trustees said.

In addition, the M. Carey Thomas Award, which had been given annually to “an American woman in recognition of eminent achievement,” will no longer carry her name. Neither will two annual writing prizes given by the college.

They will be known as the Bryn Mawr College prize or award, though the published description of the prizes and awards will include their history.

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The Thomas Building in the center of campus has classroom spaces, a library, and a great hall, also named after Thomas. Trustees have decided the library and the great hall will no longer be referred to as Thomas, though her name will be left etched on the building. 

“In leaving M. Carey Thomas’ name on the building and not renaming it in another person’s honor, we will continue to value president Thomas’ many remarkable contributions to the college,” Ann Logan, president of the trustees, wrote in a letter to the campus community Wednesday. “The inscription also reminds us to confront all aspects of Thomas’ legacy and to tell our full history.”

Trustees also directed college administrators to find ways to fully communicate Thomas’ past. In a separate letter Wednesday to the community, Bryn Mawr president Kim Cassidy announced the formation of two groups to undertake that task, as well as other initiatives designed to improve diversity and inclusion.

About a third of Bryn Mawr’s 1,381 undergraduate students are Hispanic, black, or Asian, and the college also has a significant international population.

The college, she said, will hold sessions designed to identify and overcome barriers in achieving greater diversity in the faculty hiring process and improve cross-cultural communication in the classroom.

Cassidy also announced expanded staffing for the college’s multicultural center and new donations that will create an endowed scholarship fund to support students from underrepresented groups, as well as other efforts around diversity and inclusion.

“While the discussions of the past year have at times been painful, and while they have surfaced disagreements about how we address a past marked by racism and anti-Semitism, they have also confirmed the college’s deep commitment to building a more inclusive Bryn Mawr,” Cassidy wrote.

The trustees’ letter delineated the sometimes conflicting views of the past president, noting how some see Thomas’ achievements as “empowering” and others find her racist views troubling.

“She persisted through the institutionalized sexism of three different graduate schools across two continents to earn her Ph.D., and she produced scholarship that remained highly regarded for nearly a century,” Logan wrote. “She was a national spokesperson for higher education for women, a leader in the women’s suffrage movement, and an early advocate for an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.

“She set the highest standards for Bryn Mawr in every respect…. Her insistence upon women’s capacity for intellectual achievement changed the face of the academy and continues to animate Bryn Mawr.”

But Thomas also espoused “white racial superiority” and blocked both the hiring of Jewish faculty and admission of qualified Jewish students, Logan wrote. She even rescinded admission offers made to qualified African American students.

“She denied a Bryn Mawr education and employment to exceptional persons because of their backgrounds,” Logan wrote. “Some said that the centrality of Thomas’ name indicates the college’s lack of understanding and acknowledgement of president Thomas’ racist and anti-Semitic beliefs, and leads them to question the college’s commitment to inclusion.”