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Addressing a complex history

Dr. Afua Cooper, Dalhousie’s James Robinson Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies, developed a minor program in Black and African Diaspora Studies, created the Black Faculty and Staff Caucus and now has launched the Lord Dalhousie panel, an examination of the complex legacy of the university’s eponymous founder.

Foundation: Several U.S. colleges have uncovered links to slavery and racial oppression in their institutional histories and Dalhousie’s story has its own uncomfortable chapters. Although Lord Dalhousie founded the university with a philosophy of openness, his legacy also includes documented statements supporting the return of freed slaves, who he deemed “incapable of industry,” to their masters.

Dr. Cooper is investigating the founding ideologies of higher learning institutions and how they were informed by contemporary ideas about race. With the Lord Dalhousie panel, she aims to establish the historical context behind the university’s founding ideology and Lord Dalhousie’s views on race, as well as advise the institution on how to address its complex history in the present day. She serves as chair of the panel of distinguished scholars, which will publish a report with recommendations on future actions in August of 2017.

“We are in a time when people want to learn the whole story.”

Inspiration: “We’re looking at how academies helped to further racial and gender inequality. This is what propelled us to look at Lord Dalhousie’s legacy, because he was a man who didn’t want Black people in the province and a school was established in his honour.”

Why it matters: With Dal’s bicentennial on the horizon, Dr. Cooper and the panel are conducting a vital exploration into the history of the university and the ideals that have shaped it. A complete and clear-eyed understanding of what inclusiveness meant to Lord Dalhousie in the 19th century will, as the panel’s terms of reference state, inform how the university responds to this legacy “in order to build a stronger, more inclusive university that fully reflects our history, our values and our aspirations.” As Dr. Cooper says, “We are in a time when people want to learn the whole story.”