Article Image
Natalie Tak / Staff Illustrator

Halfway through the interview with Dr. Raymond Givens, two young boys materialize through the slightly-pixelated Zoom virtual background displaying the stoic face of the rapper Biggie Smalls. The little one pops cheerfully through the famous rapper’s mouth, waving a tiny green toy at the camera, and the taller one comes running through the rapper’s tilted plastic crown, grinning cheekily and tugging at his father’s surgical scrubs. Givens, smiling at his sons and not at all fazed by the distraction, smoothly introduces his six-year-old, Lucas, and his two-year-old, Nicholas, pausing momentarily to swoop Nicholas into his lap and put his arm around Lucas’ shoulder. Givens gently corrals them out of the room, apologizes for the interruption, and without missing a beat, returns to the discussion of his efforts to change the name of Bard Hall.

Earlier in the conversation, Givens had explained his many obligations with modesty and matter-of-fact composure. But in that moment of joyous, kid-fueled chaos, it becomes clear just how many roles he balances on a daily basis. He is still wearing his scrubs after a long day of work as the associate director of the cardiac intensive care unit at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center and as an assistant professor of medicine. Now at home, he is a devoted father to his two energetic and playful sons. Behind him, an image of the Notorious B.I.G. serves as a reminder of the heavy, complicated history that he carries as a Black man. And in front of him, as he faces the screen with a composed but determined expression, he showcases his newest role, one that he never imagined taking on: a clear, unrelenting public voice working to pressure the University into dismantling institutional racism—even when he is granted no official recognition for his work.

On Aug. 28, University President Lee Bollinger announced that Columbia was renaming the medical residence dormitory known as Bard Hall, citing the fact that its namesake Samuel Bard, the founder of what is now Columbia’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, was a slaveholder. In his email, Bollinger made no mention of Givens, who had instigated a social media campaign, emailed administrators, and rallied support among faculty for the hall’s renaming.

For Givens, sharing his story is about more than just receiving credit where credit is due. When it comes to Bard Hall, all of Givens’ roles, both inherent and acquired, coincide in a deeply personal undertaking. His story is one of a man who single-handedly advocated for the name change of Bard Hall earlier this year. It is also the story of a father who watched his son enter a tall, brick building every day and felt the name above the doorway weighing on his heart. It is the story of a doctor who spent his days treating patients suffering from COVID-19 and his nights refreshing his inbox for a response from University administrators that would not come, and it is the story of a distinguished Black faculty member who put his reputation on the line in pursuit of lasting change. Above all, this is Givens’ story. It belongs to him, and he will tell it in his calm, purposeful voice—tinged with exhaustion but armed with an unshakable fortitude.

Rommel Nunez

Growing up in Florida and Georgia, Givens encountered the vestiges of slavery and institutional racism on a daily basis. The most visible—and most silently accepted—were the many buildings and housing communities still bearing the names of plantations. One day, Givens remembers his mother pulling him aside to explain the weight of those names.

“I remember [my mother] specifically mentioning to me that one of the things that she was working for and one of the things that she wanted to make sure of is that we never had to live in a place like that,” Givens says. “Even as a kid, I think I understood that that was about protecting my dignity.”

His mother’s affirmational message of dignity would stick with him throughout his journey into the medical field, as he pursued a career in which one of his primary goals would be to uphold the dignity of his patients. After receiving his doctorate in 2007, earning his medical degree in 2008, and completing his residency at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, he first arrived at Columbia for a cardiology fellowship program in 2011.

As a fellow, he ironically received the Samuel Bard Young Investigator Award from the department of medicine. At the time, though, Givens says he did not know who Bard was, beyond the fact that he had founded the College of Physicians and Surgeons and that his name was attached to a residence hall and a professorship. But when Givens returned to Columbia in 2016 as a faculty member, a colleague brought Bard’s slaveholding history—revealed and made public in 2016 by the Columbia University and Slavery project—to his attention.

The Columbia University and Slavery Project is a research course that was first taught by Professor Eric Foner in the spring of 2015, and it has been taught by multiple faculty members since then. The purpose of this project, according to Thai Jones, the Herbert H. Lehman curator for U.S. History at Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, who has taught the course three times, is “to think about the question of the history of slavery, and to connect it to Columbia in all sorts of ways.” One research project, done by Jordan Brewington, CC ’17, in spring 2016, reveals that Bard posted an advertisement in the New York Gazette pursuing an escaped slave.

Confronted with the information that Brewington and the Columbia University and Slavery Project had uncovered, Givens initially felt trapped between personal unease and professional pragmatism.

“It was one of those situations where I was uncomfortable with it but felt that this was not something that I could address because I had just been hired, now had a family to support, and I wasn’t going to jeopardize any of that,” Givens says. “And so, like a lot of people of color, marginalized people, women, you see something like that, and you just bury it, because you’re trying to keep moving.”

But the persistence of Bard’s name continued to bother Givens. Bard’s legacy became an even more pressing concern in 2017 when his son Lucas entered the medical center nursery school, which happens to be in Bard Hall. Givens describes the experience of dropping his son off at Bard Hall as deeply conflicting—on one hand, he was proud to be giving his son the best early education experience possible, but on the other hand, his mind kept returning to his mother’s promise that she would never let him live in a place named after a plantation. He felt “heavy” guilt for sending his son to a building “named for someone who would have seen him as property,” and wondered whether he was doing enough to protect Lucas’ dignity in the way that his own mother had protected his.

And then came the whirlwind of 2020.

Givens has felt the impact of this year in waves. First was the healthcare crisis brought on by the pandemic, which he witnessed firsthand as a doctor leading intensive care units on the frontline. Within the neighborhood where the medical center is situated, Givens noticed an “inescapable” pattern that nearly all the patients being gravely affected by COVID-19 were Black and Latinx people. The racial disparity that Givens witnessed as a doctor was then tragically compounded by the murder of George Floyd and the protests against police brutality and institutional racism that followed.

“My wife asked me shortly after the video of George Floyd came to the public, ‘How was I doing with it? Was this affecting me in any way?’ And my response was, ‘No, it’s fine,’” Givens recalls. “It took me months to come to grips with the fact that this [year] had really been a very psychologically devastating experience. It made me restless. My mindset went from, ‘Gee, I can’t say anything,’ to ‘I don’t know how to shut up.’ I just felt so uncomfortable.”

It was in this state of restlessness and discomfort that Givens began his push to remove Bard’s name from the residence hall and the professorship.

Givens knew he could not rely on Columbia to take action. Evidence of Bard’s history as a slave owner has been available on the Columbia University and Slavery website since 2016. “It has been available to anyone who took the time to look,” Jones says.

Despite the publicity that the Columbia University and Slavery Project garnered from major media outlets like the New York Times, the University, in reality, appeared unwilling to make changes on campus based on the evidence that the project unearthed.

“I could see that Columbia had, through the years, gotten quite a bit of very positive press about this slavery project. Not really positive, but glowing, completely uncritical,” Givens says. “And five years later, there still had been [no actions taken].”

Tommy Song, CC ’20, an active member of the Columbia University and Slavery project for four years, noticed the same trend. He says, “Columbia does all of these things that make the University seem like the university of social justice, but in reality, we don’t do anything.”

On June 19, Givens started a Twitter campaign and an online petition urging for the removal of Bard’s names from all locations and titles at Columbia. A few days later, he began emailing administrators at Columbia about the same issue. He observed some success initially when professor Donald Landry in the department of medicine agreed to retire his Samuel Bard Professorship.

Within a month, his petition gathered over 1,000 signatures, but his subsequent emails to higher administrators of the University were largely disregarded. While he suggests in all of his emails that the renaming of Bard Hall should be handled quickly, the only response he received was from Bollinger, which, he says, “really just essentially [thanked] me for looking into the issue and to acknowledge what I’d done for the University.”

Then Bollinger sent an email announcing “Columbia’s Commitment to Antiracism” on July 21. He detailed action items to be pursued by the University in combating racism, including an institutional process of re-evaluating symbols and names on campus. The announcement struck Givens as deeply hypocritical.

“Here you are, actively ignoring a Black faculty member who’s trying to raise concerns with you, while at the same time saying that you’re committed to anti-racism, and anti-racism this is not,” Givens says.

He wrote to administrators again, expressing his frustration with how the University had been handling his requests to communicate with them. Though he reached out to Columbia’s legal department, there was no response except for a promise to follow up from Executive Vice President for University Life Suzanne Goldberg, which went unfulfilled.

With the mounting success of his efforts on social media, Givens knew that Bard Hall was going to be renamed eventually. “Certainly by this point,” he says, “I was fully predicting that Bard Hall was going to be renamed, but that that was going to be decided behind closed doors, on their own time.” Senior leadership at the University Medical Center told him in early August that Bard Hall would be renamed, but Bollinger and Goldberg never communicated with Givens themselves.

On August 28, a month after announcing Columbia’s commitment to anti-racism, Bollinger announced the renaming of Bard Hall. Givens was not recognized anywhere in the announcement.

A Columbia spokesperson told Spectator that “this important action [the renaming of Bard Hall] is the result of the powerful advocacy of Dr. Givens and the contributions of many others, all of whom deserve our appreciation.” But that appreciation — to Givens, or to other contributors, like the Columbia and Slavery Project — was not expressed in Bollinger’s announcement.

“It’s not so much about me wanting to be credited for it. It’s about honesty,” Givens says. “It’s about the people who made me. All of that history that informs why I did what I did, that’s pivotal to the story. I found it offensive that someone could come along and try to just take the credit for it.”

Bard Hall’s name will be changed, but Givens’ fight is not over yet. He filed a report with the compliance office and contacted the University’s general counsel on September 17, writing, “I will not accept that the president, provost, board of trustees, executive vice president, compliance office and associate general counsel are willing to conspire to ignore an African-American faculty member’s concerns in this matter. I want to again clarify my iron-willed determination to be heard and my absolute unwillingness to go away. I truly want to resolve this peacefully.”

Givens filed an incident report with the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action on September 18. After three weeks of waiting, he received a response from the office on October 9 acknowledging that it had received his report. He has since retained a lawyer for his ongoing case with the EOAA. While Givens admits that his claim of discrimination is “not straightforward,” he has continually refined his argument and is hoping that process will at least result in some constructive results. For instance, he hopes that his case will compel the University to include the community in the renaming process for Bard Hall.

“I’ve clearly presented grievances to various aspects of the administration and been ignored, and there was a duty of the University to follow up. What I’m bringing to them is entirely based on my identity as an African American,” Givens explains. “It’s inseparable, not just the story of how I got to raising the issue, but my dissatisfaction with how it’s being handled. In that way, it’s racially discriminatory.”

What makes the problem even more alarming is that Givens is a faculty member who directly approached those at the top, raising concerns that if the University will not listen to him, it will not listen to anyone.

“I’m a professor in the department of medicine. I’m a leader in the division of cardiology. I was physician of the year last year at the NewYork-Presbyterian, Columbia,” Givens says. “If I can be ignored, what chance does a student have? It’s intensely disturbing.”

Givens’ individual story contending with administrative unresponsiveness and being excluded from a process that he set in motion speaks to a more pervasive problem within the University’s response to community feedback.

Ironically, on the page of the University Life website that describes the commitment to anti-racism, the link to a survey for students to submit questions and suggestions does not work.

In 2015, 2016, and 2019, students in the Columbia University and Slavery Project informally presented their findings to Bollinger, and part of the presentations included a list of recommendations about how the University could address elements of racism on campus. The list raises issues about other symbols on campus that reference former slave owners, including the Thomas Jefferson statue and Havemeyer Hall, named after Frederick Christian Havemeyer. University administrators seem to just “take the recommendations and act like they have read it, but they never do anything with it,” Song says.

At the end of August, Columbia’s Mobilized African Diaspora, a student organization fighting anti-Blackness, drafted a list of demands from the University that it felt were necessary to fight against anti-Blackness perpetuated at Columbia and in the surrounding community. A MAD representative described the enormous effort the group members put into drafting these demands.

“We wanted to take the time to really make something that we were proud of and we felt was really comprehensive and addressed a lot of things that both we were frustrated by and community members were frustrated by,” the MAD representative says.

The University has not met MAD’s demands with an effective response. The group’s request to meet with Bollinger received no reply, and when it met with Goldberg, Associate Vice President for Community Affairs Flores Forbes, and Associate Vice President for Student Life Ixchel Rosal on September 7, members were left frustrated, feeling that the administrators had heard but not listened to them. The MAD representative remembers the administrators spending nearly 20 minutes of their hour-long meeting thanking MAD for bringing the issues to their attention and assuring them that its demands were heard. Nowhere in the meeting did administrators take definitive stances or respond directly to the group’s demands.

“They’ve seen that if [the University says] no, people have something to organize around, something to report back to everybody that is interested in what’s going on,” the MAD representative says. “But if [they] say ‘We hear you,’ what do you say back?”

For someone whose core sense of duty and purpose revolves around protecting the dignity of others—his sons, his patients, his community—Givens emphasized that the University’s lack of response has meant more than simple frustration.

“I put myself on the line during this pandemic, I was physician of the year, all of that,” Givens says. “All of that is not enough to prevent me from being erased. There was a part of me that was just screaming about that.”

MAD similarly cited how Columbia’s repeated denial to directly acknowledge its concerns as legitimate has impacted its ability to speak out, particularly as students trying to represent marginalized perspectives.

“If no one else is responding and no one else acknowledges that the issue is important enough for even a simple email response, then it’s like maybe I’m just crazy. Maybe I’m not deserving of this response,” the MAD representative attests. “You get nervous talking to people in positions of authority because you feel like you’re not important enough to. And to have that confirmed in such an intense way, it’s difficult.”

But when considering whether the stress that accompanied his efforts to change the name of Bard Hall was worth it in retrospect, Givens has only one answer: “I still would have done it.”

Why? In part because of the history of civil rights advocacy that lies behind him, as well as the sacrifices made by his mother, his enslaved ancestors, and “all the people who made it possible for [him] to be a physician at Columbia.” He also knew that someone had to be brave enough to step up as the catalyst for change and understood that potentially risking his reputation and his career would be “the least [he could] offer.” But his primary motivation was the growing guilt he felt watching his son disappear into Bard Hall every morning, and his desire to make the community a better place for both of his children.

“What am I going to tell my sons when they ask me, ‘What did you do?’” Givens says. “I want to be able to say, ‘I did this for you guys.’ I want to be able to say to them, ‘I did everything I could to make it right for you, and to make sure that you don’t ever have to face that kind of humiliation in your life.’”

In Givens’ view, changing the name of Bard Hall should be the “entry point” into a larger conversation about how to make Columbia a fairer environment for everyone and how to address mistakes that have been made in the past. He, and many others like him, are ready to help facilitate that discussion and encourage Columbia to change in a holistic and inclusive way. The question is whether the University—and its administration, students, faculty members, and employees—will listen and take action, too.

Enjoy leafing through our ninth issue!

Previous Issue | More In This Issue

Raymond Givens Anti-Blackness Columbia University and Slavery Bard Hall Columbia University Irving Medical Center
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT