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Dartmouth College alumni and students are calling for the school to rename its Black Family Visual Arts Center (BVAC) following revelations of Leon Black’s financial ties to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Black and his wife Debra contributed $48 million toward the campus building, which houses the studio art, film, and media studies departments, in 2012.
Black has also served as chairman of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City since 2018. Earlier this month, Hyperallergic reported on hundreds of artists’ calls for MoMA to remove him from its board of trustees. In January, Black announced he would step down as CEO of his private equity firm Apollo Global Management after a report found that he paid Epstein $158 million in financial advising fees between 2012 and 2017.
Conducted by the Wall Street law firm Dechert LLP, the report found no evidence that Black had participated in criminal activity, though some have questioned whether the three-month investigation revealed the true extent and nature of Epstein and Black’s relationship.
With an estimated net worth of $8 billion, however, Black’s influence extends beyond the arts, with massive donations to MIT, Harvard, and Dartmouth, from which he earned his undergraduate degree.
In a statement shared with Hyperallergic, Dartmouth alumni Stan Colla, Ruth Cserr, Roberta Millstein, and Diana Whitney urge the university to “show institutional courage.”
“We call upon the College to remove the Black family name, with or without Leon Black’s 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,” the group writes.
Colla, Cserr, Millstein, and Whitney are founding members of the Dartmouth Community Against Gender Harassment and Sexual Violence (DCGHSV), a coalition of current and former students, faculty, and staff advocating for better policies to address and prevent sexual abuse on campus.
For some members of DCGHSV, the need to reckon with Black’s relationship to Dartmouth is not simply a question of effacing a tarnished name — it is inextricably tied to the history of sexual assault at the university.
“The building represents an ever-present insult to all Dartmouth survivors: including the nine students who as plaintiffs sued Dartmouth for enabling their professors’ abuses, the 65 victims who received a settlement from the class action, and hundreds of other students who have endured sexual violence on campus,” the statement says.
In 2019, Dartmouth reached a $14.4 million settlement with nine women who accused three professors in Dartmouth’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences of sexual misconduct and rape. Although the behavior went as far back as 2002, the college turned a blind eye, the lawsuit claimed. An open letter in solidarity with the plaintiffs, signed by hundreds of Dartmouth students and alumni, said at the time that the incidents were “part of an institutional culture that minimizes and disregards sexual violence and gender harassment.”
Whitney, a ‘95 Dartmouth graduate, said she was raped on campus her first year. “I was 18, it wasn’t anything that I reported, that I was encouraged to report. I was also pretty violently sexually harassed by some drunk frat boys who tried to get into my dorm room. Those kinds of things were normal behavior at Dartmouth in the 90s,” she told Hyperallergic.
Dartmouth, she notes, was also the last Ivy League school to admit women, in 1972.
“There’s a sort of deep-seated, misogynistic culture that lives on,” Whitney said. She adds that the school has taken some steps to improve its campus culture — in 2015, President Hanlon announced the creation of a four-year sexual violence prevention program for undergraduate students. But work remains to be done, and that includes reckoning with Black’s namesake, according to some members of the school’s community.
“When I see [Black’s] name on the building, what it means to me is that women and minorities and marginalized groups do not really matter at Dartmouth,” Whitney said.
In 2019, 71 cases of gender-based violence were reported at Dartmouth, including 33 reports of rape, according to data provided by the college to the Clery Center. Considering that only about 20% of incidents are typically reported, the alumni’s statement says, the numbers are likely higher.
Nicole Sellew, a current undergraduate student, told the campus newspaper the Dartmouth that the school’s refusal to deal with BVAC is part of a pattern.
“Things don’t get changed until there is a news story, until there is a big hoopla,” Sellew said. “The larger problem is that the school has no problem looking the other way getting this huge donation, until it’s a problem.”
Black also endowed the Leon Black Professor of Shakespearean Studies and the Eli M. Black Distinguished Professor of Jewish Studies at the college. According to the Dartmouth, Black has made contributions both personally and through the Black Family Foundation. Epstein served as the foundation’s director for 10 years before stepping down in 2007. (A spokesperson for Black told the Dartmouth that Black “played no operational role.”)
A year later, in 2008, Epstein pleaded guilty to a felony charge for soliciting sex from minors, including girls as young as 14. He served only two thirds of his 18-month prison sentence.
Dechert’s investigation said Black believed Epstein had “served his time” for the case and deserved a second chance.
In light of the recent revelations, Black said he would pledge $200 million toward gender equality initiatives and organizations supporting survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking. In their statement, the group of alumni suggest Black could “[give] a tenth of that to his alma mater to work directly toward changing the culture of male primacy that feeds into the Clery statistics.”
“What if Black himself were to ask Dartmouth to change the name of the building?” the alumni ask. “What if, for example, a representative committee of students, alumnae, faculty, and staff were to suggest a new, more appropriate name? Then the Black Family could take credit for wanting to help change the harmful culture at Dartmouth, to create a campus safe for all students from the degradation of gender-based violence.”
“There is a real failure here to acknowledge what’s going on, and it’s part of a larger pattern,” said Cserr in an interview with Hyperallergic. “This defensiveness is the basic power structures saying, ‘We can’t question power.’”
College spokesperson Diana Lawrence told the Dartmouth that the school has no plans to change the center’s name. Lawrence has declined to comment further for this story.
“Dartmouth is saying, ‘Well, we looked at this and none of this money is tainted by Epstein, so it doesn’t matter,’” Cserr said. “Shouldn’t we be better than that?”
Apollo Global Management has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment from Leon Black.