Letter to the Editor: ‘Steinhardt student governments call for school to be renamed’

A letter concerning Michael Steinhardt from faculty of the department of Media, Culture, and Communication.

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Echo Chen

(Illustration by Echo Chen)

We, the undersigned faculty of the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication write in deep concern over the widely disseminated report from the Manhattan District Attorney concerning Michael Steinhardt’s extensive involvement with stolen art and antiquities.

To quote this report, “[f]or decades, Michael Steinhardt displayed a rapacious appetite for plundered artifacts without concern for the legality of his actions.” These words are borne out in the detailed findings that have led to the return of 180 stolen antiquities valued at $70 million and received a first-of-its-kind lifetime ban on acquiring antiquities. A Greek statue was broken into pieces, just to facilitate its smuggling.

The DA decided against prosecution in order to facilitate the return of this cultural property and to spare witnesses the ordeal of cross-examination. But the moral condemnation is clear.

This trafficking in looted goods goes as far back as 1987, long before he endowed the School. In 2020 a looted golden bowl was brought to Newark for Michael Steinhardt, which according to the New York Times, was “looted from Nimrud, Iraq, and purchased without provenance papers, officials said, for $150,000 in July 2020, at a time when objects from Nimrud were being trafficked by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.” That means that Steinhardt bought loot from ISIS (or ISIL), defined by the US government as a “terrorist organization.” 

This was not an isolated incident. Steinhardt acquired art stolen “from Lebanon during the Lebanese Civil War,” from Syria, and from Libya. Despite vociferous advocacy for Israel, Steinhardt acquired three Death Masks (circa 6000 to 7000 B.C.E.) looted from the Judean Mountains. Irrespective of where the art was from, and irrespective through which organizations he may have purchased or plundered it, the looting of art is a most egregious activity, and even more so in the context of war and conflict. 

All these actions go against the core values of the School of Culture, Education and Human Development. Mindful of the substantial allegations of sexual misconduct against Steinhardt credibly reported in 2019, and of this forty year pattern of looting and self-aggrandisement, we say associating our department with Michael Steinhardt damages our reputation as a credible academic department committed to the study of Media, Culture and Communication.  

The privilege of naming is part of the educational mission. It cannot be bestowed on those who flagrantly violate the law and are the beneficiaries of war, social breakdown and terrorism. These allegations clearly violate the spirit that the School’s Office of Equity Belonging and Community Action defines as:  “[Promoting]…a climate, culture, and commitment to intersectional identities, anti-racism, cultural proficiency, equity, social justice, and sense of belonging.”

We think it is time for the deans of the School of Culture, Education and Human Development and the trustees of New York University to reconsider our association with the name Steinhardt. We ask further that this review be conducted with faculty representatives chosen by the Steinhardt Faculty Council and, if need be, the Faculty Senators Council. A recommended course of action should be laid before the school and the university community no later than March 1, 2021.

In the meantime, many of us will remove the name Steinhardt from our email signatures, websites, and other forms of public communication. We hope and expect that those who do will not be subject to any institutional censure,

Sincerely,

Stephen Duncombe, Professor

Allen Feldman, Professor

Nicole R. Fleetwood, James Weldon Johnson Professor 

Alexander Galloway, Professor

Lisa Gitelman, Professor

Radha Hegde, Professor

Nicholas Mirzoeff, Professor

Susan Murray, Professor

Arvind Rajagopal, Professor

Marita Sturken, Professor

Jamie Skye Bianco, Clinical Associate Professor

Paula Chakravartty, Associate Professor

Brett Gary, Associate Professor

Mara Mills, Associate Professor

Ted Magder, Associate Professor

Juan Piñón, Associate Professor

Natasha Schüll, Associate Professor

Helga Tawil-Souri, Associate Professor

Nicole Starosielski, Associate Professor

Isra Ali, Clinical Assistant Professor

Kelli Moore, Assistant Professor

Laine Nooney, Assistant Professor

Angela Xiao Wu, Assistant Professor

Aurora Wallace, Clinical Professor

Martin Scherzinger, Associate Professor

Whit Pow, Assistant Professor

Contact the undersigned faculty of department of Media, Culture, and Communication at [email protected]