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Corbin Hall Tiles

Four tiles with swastika-like designs on the facade of Corbin Hall are at the center of a discussion by University of Montana students and faculty to have them removed.

University of Montana student and faculty leaders are calling on UM to remove four tiles with swastika-like designs from the facade of Corbin Hall.

In the past month, both the Associated Students of the University of Montana Senate and the Faculty Senate passed resolutions calling for the removal of this small tile cluster, one of several with abstract designs that were placed on Corbin Hall when it was built in the 1920s.

At the time, such symbols were widely used and not yet adopted by the Nazis. Peter Brown, historic architecture specialist with the Montana Historical Society, said the symbol in this orientation, in a mirror image of the swastika, is technically called an aristika.

But on Thursday, DiverseU student coordinator Joseph Grady told the Faculty Senate that it needed to go. “Whether or not that symbol is facing left or right is somewhat arbitrary in terms of the impact it has on our student body and its interpretation,” said Grady, a senior.

The Montana Kaimin reported that earlier this year, a student complained about the tiles to the university’s Diversity Advisory Council. UM administration asked that group to provide a recommendation on the matter, and it subsequently recommended the tile be removed, archived and replaced. On Dec. 3, ASUM passed a resolution supporting that proposal.

Grady, joined by council members Annie Belcourt and Wilena Old Person, made their case to the Faculty Senate on Thursday. While the building design wasn’t intended to symbolize the Holocaust, Grady said, “that symbol bears that history ... and that is what students are looking at when they gaze up at that.”

An option backed by the Montana Historical Society — leaving the tiles up but adding an interpretive plaque  — had been discussed but turned down by the council. Grady called that a “dismissive narrative to the people who actually want it removed.”

Not all faculty members agree. As discussion around the tiles grew, Professor Ruth Vanita, founding co-director of South and South-East Asian studies at UM, prepared a statement on the symbol’s pre-Nazi significance. The swastika dates back thousands of years and has been used by many Eurasian and Native American cultures.

“The 20th century Nazi misuse of the symbol does not invalidate its history or meaning,” she wrote, adding that a plaque could suit the university's educational mission. A few professors raised similar points at Thursday’s Faculty Senate meeting.

“I think it's really important to, on an academic campus, to acknowledge the fact that these symbols have very specific meanings and that change over time,” said Matthew Semanoff, associate professor of Classics. 

Semanoff noted that he is Jewish, but said “it also troubles me to think that we are allowing a very dark, short period in human history to erase many thousands of years of human culture that have used this symbol with much more positive meanings behind it.”

Ultimately, however, the Faculty Senate voted overwhelmingly to adopt a resolution supporting the recommendation to remove the tiles, with Semanoff and two other professors voting against it.

The Diversity Advisory Council plans to formalize its own stance on the tiles at its Dec. 10 meeting. In an emailed statement, UM spokesperson Paula Short said the council’s recommendations and the senate resolutions “will inform decisions and actions moving forward with regard to the tiles on Corbin Hall. No decisions or plans will be made until the DAC has the opportunity to forward their recommendation” to the president.

Corbin Hall is a contributing element to the University of Montana Historic District listed on the National Register of Historic Places. While the Diversity Advisory Council had consulted with the Montana Historical Society in preparing its stance, Brown, also the acting State Historic Preservation Officer, said additional consultation would need to take place before the tiles could be removed.

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