The Diversity Advisory Council announced on Oct. 30 that a tile displaying four swastikas on the outside of Corbin Hall should be removed and archived, sparking debate among student senators.
While the council’s current stance is informal and subject to change, Adrianne Smith, director of the University Center and member of the DAC, said it’s important to consider students that are offended by the tile.
“We have to represent all students and make all students feel welcome and safe here,” Smith said. “If there’s any one student who feels unsafe because of a tile, why can’t we simply take it down?”
But for members of the Associated Students of the University of Montana senate, the decision isn’t simple. ASUM Sen. Vincent Tarallo questioned whether it’s in the council’s authority to determine what is offensive or not.
“If we take this particular tile down, where do we draw the line?” asked Tarallo at the ASUM senate meeting last week. “People can get offended by anything. If I’m offended by the ASUM logo, should we take that down?”
Corbin Hall, originally constructed in 1927, displays 21 symbols above windows on the outside of the building. A student alerted UM’s Diversity Advisory Council in December 2018 that one tile on the west side of the building displays four swastikas.
George Carsley designed Corbin Hall and other buildings around the state with similar symbols, according to the Montana Historical Society. Smith said the symbols on Corbin Hall are influenced by Native American and EastAsian culture. They were popular in the spiritualism movement of architecture when the building was designed.
Tarallo said the University should choose to use the tile as an education point. He said the University should put up a sign to provide information on the actual meaning of the symbol.
Peter Brown from the historical society said removing any original architecture or design harms the historical significance of the building. The University of Montana was required to consult the Montana Historical Society about Corbin Hall, but can make a decision on its own. The historical society recommended the University put a sign up explaining the symbol.
ASUM Sen. Noah Durnell disagrees. While he recognizes the significance this symbol has for some cultures, Durnell said the swastika’s association with Nazism isn’t something you can just chip away. He supports removing the tile because a sign wouldn’t prevent individuals on campus from interpreting the swastika as a symbol of hate.
“That’s not something that you can just remove by educating people about the symbolism behind it,” Durnell said.
This connotation is the driving idea behind the council’s current stance.
“If you were to see that symbol on a sidewalk or in the back of someone’s vehicle, or a poster of it in someone’s residence hall, there would be nonstop complaints,” Smith said.
Ruth Vanita, director of South and Southeast Asian studies at UM, said the swastika was originally a Eurasian symbol. The swastika can also be found in Africa, among Native American cultures, ancient Greece and Rome, Iceland and Ireland.
Vanita said the swastika on Corbin Hall is Sanskrit. It is common in Indian and Hindu culture. She said Sanskrit symbolizes health, well-being and the cycle of life. Sanskrit is used in decoration and worship in Indian culture throughout history. She said the DAC’s current stance does a disservice to this fact.
“It is one of very few recognitions of non-American, non-European civilization on campus,” said Vanita in an email. “It would be a great pity to remove it.”
Vanita instead supports the idea of a plaque explaining Sanskrit and its history. She said failing to recognize this symbol for what it actually represents excuses the appropriation of the swastika in Western cultures. Removing the tile ignores the fact that this symbol has a very different, and much longer, history in other parts of the world.
“Just because some Europeans decided to misuse an ancient Asian symbol, that doesn’t mean the ancient and continuing significance of the symbol gets invalidated,” Vanita said.
The council will meet with the faculty senate and staff senate later this year to discuss the issue before making a formal recommendation to the cabinet for decision in 2020. Smith plans on making room for a discussion of the swastikas at DiverseU on campus, Nov. 5 to Nov. 7.
ASUM President Abbigail Belcher said she plans to introduce a resolution on Nov. 6 at the ASUM senate meeting to formalize the group’s stance.