Confronting Our Complicity: A Case for Renaming the Student Commons

By: Priya Varanasi (Class of 2022) and Jordan Hughes, MD (Class of 2015)

At Manhattan College, the racial demographics are vastly different–that is to say, whiter–than the rest of New York City, especially the Bronx. For decades, this disparity has lulled our institution into a quiet complacency on issues of race. Now, as countless people take to the streets demanding racial justice and police reform, the College must look inward at its own complicity and take one of the most critically overdue steps to promote racial equity on campus: rename the Raymond W. Kelly ‘63 Student Commons. Given recent interest in renaming, we find it necessary to provide the Manhattan College community with the following context and analysis. 

In cities across the country, statues glorifying racist figures are being removed, by order or by force. Even the military, so culturally steeped in tradition, is considering renaming bases that bear the names of Confederate officers. The public is demanding that municipalities and institutions reconsider who they choose to celebrate and honor.

These demands follow decades of discussion on the impact of place-naming, and how it educates and informs the mindset of a community. The names we choose for our buildings help define the social, political, and cultural values of our communities and institutions, including college campuses. This idea prompts renewed introspection about what Manhattan College tacitly supports by naming its newest, most community-facing building after Raymond Kelly, a man whose legacy conflicts with the institution’s message of inclusion.  

During his term as NYPD Commissioner from 2002 to 2013, Mr. Kelly implemented multiple policies that disproportionately affected people of color. To start, he was featured in the anti-Muslim film The Third Jihad, which the NYPD used to train over 1,400 officers. Also during Mr. Kelly’s tenure, the NYPD spied on Muslim citizens throughout the New York City metropolitan area and infiltrated many Muslim Student Associations in the City and surrounding suburbs. Most notably, he greatly expanded New York City’s infamous stop-and-frisk policy, which disproportionately targeted Black and Latinx neighborhoods, and was ruled unconstitutional a year before the dedication of the student commons. Finally, shortly after his tenure as Commissioner, Kelly published a book titled Vigilance, in which he disapprovingly cited “the Ferguson effect,” in reference to the outrage after Michael Brown’s death, as a cause of disengaged, hesitant policing, and falsely insisted that this would result in increased crime.

This troubling career begs the question of how the student commons came to bear Mr. Kelly’s name in the first place. 

Understanding the need for additional lecture halls, administrative offices, and, importantly, spaces for commuter students to relax and study while not attending classes, the administration set out to build what we now know as the student commons. The College, unable to fund the project through alumni pledges, needed a donation of ten million dollars to begin building. They received these funds from Thomas O’Malley, then chair of the Board of Trustees and Manhattan College alumnus, on the condition that the building bear the name of his former classmate, Raymond Kelly. In a conversation with President O’Donnell prior to the 2012 groundbreaking ceremony, Dr. Jordan Hughes, then an MC junior, discovered that the Board of Trustees was split at the prospect of accepting such a condition, considering Mr. Kelly’s controversial career.  Ultimately, the Board decided to accept the funds. The administration faced immediate backlash, even resulting in a protest at the December 2012 groundbreaking ceremony, attended by students and faculty holding signs that read such statements as, “Stop + frisk hurts MC students,” “Muslims: welcomed, not ‘watched’,” “Don’t align his values with ours!” “Is $10 Mil worth it?” and “He’s not finished…will it get worse?”

Now, some eight years later, students, alumni, faculty, and neighbors alike are again voicing our concern about the student commons bearing Mr. Kelly’s name. As the Black Lives Matter movement draws national attention to the systemic brutalization of Black people by the police, public outrage is growing over the unjust and, sometimes, criminal nature of such violence. Most recently, the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd have sparked fresh anger over such injustice. 

These developments demonstrate that Mr. Kelly’s legacy continues to hinder Manhattan College’s goal of creating an inclusive learning environment. His name on the commons signals that, despite the College’s message of inclusivity and efforts to combat injustice, students’ concerns only matter insofar as they do not agitate wealthy donors. By acquiescing to Mr. O’Malley’s condition, for the price of ten million dollars, the Board of Trustees appears to be  committed to backing the police, without considering what such backing might mean for our Black and Brown community members. 

Step into the student commons, and you will find a narrative of Raymond Kelly’s legacy that is whitewashed and ostensibly apolitical, with facts about his relationship to surveilling Muslims and expanding New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy noticeably absent. Nowhere in the building can you find the narratives of those harmed by his policies. This makes a clear statement that the community members who belong, deserve to be celebrated, and help shape the College’s identity, are those who are regarded favorably by donors, even at the cost of erasing from our history the systemic violence done to Black and Brown communities. Since place-naming speaks to the culture an institution wishes to establish, this decision sends the message that Manhattan College’s culture is determined by those who provide the most funding. 

We fear that the Manhattan College administration only superficially cares about issues that deeply affect students. While the College provides some resources for students of color, it will not commit to fighting the large, structural injustices that ultimately harm them. We see that money is prioritized over providing a sense of belonging for those who have historically not been given one.

The College chooses to honor a man whose legacy is largely defined by the way his policies harm marginalized communities, and relies on those who have been victimized by such policies to remain ignorant of his role in carrying them out. This must change.

Students, faculty, and alumni are demanding that the College rename the commons via social media, a petition, a resolution, and a Statement Opposing Institutional Racism, all of which have gained widespread support from the Jasper community. This supprt displays the community’s belief  in renaming as a crucial step in changing the College’s narrative surrounding racial equity and inclusion. 

It is time for the College’s administration to commit to this change. This must be accomplished not only by removing Kelly’s name, but by engaging with members of the Manhattan College community whose experience, knowledge, and expertise will give way to a thoughtful renaming. 

Just as St. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle defied the institutional norms of his day, Manhattan College has a Lasallian opportunity to defy the status quo and take the side of the marginalized. The College administration must answer the call of hundreds of students, alumni, faculty, and neighbors to rename the Raymond W. Kelly ‘63 Student Commons, and stand with its students instead of against us.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in The Quadrangle are those of the individual writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Board, the College or the student body.

One thought on “Confronting Our Complicity: A Case for Renaming the Student Commons

  1. It would be interesting and informative for the writers to also mention how many lives of “people of color” were saved through intelligent police enforcement tactics during Mr. Kelly’s tenure as NYC Police Commissioner (1992-1994) and (2002-2013).

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