Student challenges values of alumnus
When Erik Opczynski, president of the Rutgers-Camden College Republicans, wrote an opinion's piece for the campus newspaper, The Gleaner, he sought to further the school's knowledge of Paul Robeson's legacy.
Opczynski requested in the Sept. 20 commentary "Robeson Library conveys wrong message" that the administration remove Robeson's name from the library on campus, citing Robeson's association with the Communist Party as his reasoning.
"Rutgers-Camden, as a public institution of higher learning, should be ashamed that a library — one of America's most important promoters of freedom — bears the name of an unabashed Communist, who despised the capitalism and liberty we are so fortunate to enjoy," Opczynski, a Rutgers-Camden School of Business senior, wrote.
He said associating Robeson's name with locations on campus implies the University accepts such values.
"The use of Mr. Robeson's name on the walls and buildings of Rutgers-Camden suggests to students a clear message that the university may reward you even if you decide to become a racist, anti-capitalist, anti-American activist," Opczynski wrote.
Although he acknowledges Robeson, the University's first black valedictorian, was a "brilliant" man, Opczynski's words were soon met with attention from major news media, some of which he said distorted his ideas.
"Our goal was to act as a catalyst on a political issue that might be of interest to students, something our group has attempted to do every week for the past two semesters in The Gleaner," Opczynski said via e-mail. "Several left-wing blogs and small news sites picked up the story and twisted it further and further out of context."
Rutgers-Camden Director of Communications Mike Sepanic said the University has no plans of honoring the Rutgers-Camden College Republicans' request, and Opczynski said the Rutgers-Camden College Republicans have since moved on to other issues, such as the results of the midterm election.
But members of the Rutgers-New Brunswick Black Student Union still has Opczynski's comments etched in their minds.
The group expressed its discontent with Opczynski's stance last week at a meeting.
BSU Secretary Ashley Otto said Robeson, a civil rights leader, agreed with communist ideals, like equality, which he was denied as the only black student during his four years at the University.
"It was a ludicrous idea for them to even want to remove his name, because it seems as though the only premise they're going by is that a lot of his ideals mirrored those of Communists," said Otto, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore. "Principles of equality — not the fact that Communists are responsible for massive death — that's what Paul Robeson was trying to promote."
Removing Robeson's name from campus buildings would be a great dishonor to a man who suffered during his lifetime, facing many challenges to make strides for blacks in America, she said.
"The removal of Paul Robeson's name would basically say, ‘Thanks, Paul Robeson, but no thanks,'" Otto said. "I feel as though it would be a slap in the face, because that man fought and lost blood, sweat and tears for us."
No one has a perfect record, and Robeson's political affiliation should not be a cause for disrespecting his legacy, Otto said.
"You can dig up every person's past and find any ill will, any woes, any ‘negative things,' a leader has done, and at the end of the day, all leaders are humans, all leaders have made mistakes," she said. "They were leaders for a reason."
Rutgers-New Brunswick College Republicans President Noah Glyn said the solution to the dispute does not lie in removing Robeson's name from buildings, but honoring other accomplished alumni who made contributions to the University.
"I think it is interesting that so many things at Rutgers are named after him, while you don't have anything named after Milton Friedman, another Rutgers grad," said Glyn, a School of Arts and Sciences junior. "I'm not going to say anything bad about Paul Robeson … As a black man, maybe he thought communism [accepted him]. Maybe that's how he felt."
Glyn said his organization had no intention of taking on a similar endeavor here at the University.