Trabant: Hero or homophobe?
In 1976, then-university President Edward Arthur Trabant, for whom the Trabant University Center was named, was found liable by the U.S. District Court of Delaware for violating the civil rights of a director of the university theater by terminating his employment because he was homosexual.
Trabant, who died in 2012, was president of the university from 1968 to 1987, and again from 1988 to 1990. In 1976, by his own admission, he refused to renew the contract of Richard Aumiller, a theatre lecturer at the university and faculty advisor to the Registered Student Organization (RSO) The Gay Community, because Aumiller had promoted the acceptance of homosexuality on campus.
Later that same year Aumiller, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the university and named President Trabant as one of several defendants in the lawsuit. It was in the subsequent trial that apparent homophobic remarks by President Trabant, including those in a written letter to the Chairman of the Board of Trustees at the time, came to light as the reasoning for the termination of Aumiller.
In 1975, Aumiller gave interviews to a series of news outlets expressing his sexual preference and commenting on The Gay Community. Trabant took issue with this public expression of Aumiller’s sexual orientation.
“Becoming an advocate and evangelist for gays, he [Richard Aumiller] will naturally attract others to the campus to be employed, to hang around or to be students,” Trabant said in the aforementioned letter. “Therefore, I feel that I have no other choice but to step in as president and attempt to correct the situation.”
Trabant felt at the time that Aumiller’s sexuality harmed the university.
“As President of the University I am effronted [sic] by his statements and the signs which are in his office,” Trabant continued in the letter. “I really don’t care what he does in his bedroom, but when he insists on making public information of it, I find that shocking and of harm to the University.”
Aumiller was informed his contract was not being renewed on Jan. 5, 1976. A week later on Jan. 12, The Morning News published several quotes from Trabant, explaining the decision not to renew the contract.
“The University does not normally comment on why contracts are not renewed. But to pretend to say that [the advocacy of homosexuality] was not the reason is wrong,” Trabant was quoted as saying. “He has placed himself in a position of advocacy, and as president of this institution, I have to make it clear we don’t encourage that. This will clarify our stand. If it goes to court, the issue will be further clarified.”
Trabant was not fired, reprimanded or disciplined by the university for his statements. Nor did the verdict find him at fault for violating Aumiller’s civil rights. The verdict came with an order for Trabant to personally pay Aumiller five thousand dollars, in addition to the money the university itself would pay. In the end, this fine was voluntarily paid by the individual members of the Board of Trustees at the time so that Trabant would not be personally penalized for his actions on behalf of the university.
In 1996, 19 years after the verdict found Trabant had violated Aumiller’s civil rights, the Trabant University Center was named in his honor. Then-Chairman of the Board of Trustees Andrew B. Kirkpatrick Jr. spoke favorably of Trabant at the dedication ceremony that same year.
“Together, Art and [his wife] Jerry and their synergy have provided the University of Delaware and the state of Delaware with a unique legacy of integrity, compassion and understanding that will be memorialized for all time by this signature building we dedicate today,” Kirkpatrick said.
Andrea Boyle Tippett, director of external relations at the university, declined to provide any opinion or comment on behalf of the current administration in regards to the situation.
“I can’t speak to that,” Boyle Tippett said. “I can’t give the opinion of the entire administration.”
Recent months have seen students across the country cry foul that there are buildings on their campuses honoring individuals who have committed moral wrongs in this country’s history.
From 2015 to 2017, Yale University grappled with the fact that one of their residential colleges was named in honor of John Calhoun, a valedictorian at the university who went on to become a politician who ardently supported slavery. It was only after years of controversy that the university renamed the college, choosing to instead honor a rear admiral who graduated from the school.
In 2014, Duke University renamed a residence hall that had previously honored Charles Aycock, a former governor who is said to have supported black disenfranchisement.
A year later in 2015, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill renamed Saunders Hall, named after Confederate Colonel William Saunders who was also a leader of the Ku Klux Klan, as Carolina Hall.
Most of these controversial figures date to nineteenth-century America. So far, there have not been many national controversies over twentieth-century figures who are still within living memory, nor has there been any prominent outcry over buildings named after individuals who may have made been anti-homosexual.
Although there has been no public protest over the naming of the Trabant University Center in the 21 years since it was built, that does not mean all students are ambivalent about the implications.
Daniela Totoy, the treasurer of Haven, which is the RSO descendant of The Gay Community from the 1970s, was surprised when she found the newspaper clippings in Haven’s office about what had happened in the 1970s.
“I was really surprised by them,” Totoy said, speaking in an individual capacity and not as a representative of Haven. “It just made me feel like the university will protect students on its face. But when it comes to things like these they will brush it under a rug.”
What Totoy finds more worrying is that while the broader political climate may have changed in the past 40 years, the opinions Trabant expressed are still held by some people today.
“Those same comments that he’s making are still comments that are said today,” Totoy said.
Director of Student Diversity and Inclusion Stephanie Chang disagrees that Trabant’s name on a prominent campus building is a major concern for the LGBTQ+ community.
“There are a lot of buildings on this campus and other campuses of higher education that have histories that we can’t change.” Chang said. “So how do we educate people on what that history looks like?”
Elias Antelman, a former president of Haven and current intern under Chang, fears that any focus on the naming of the Trabant University Center will prevent the use of resources to benefit LGBTQ+ students elsewhere on campus.
“If students catch wind about something like this are they going to be angry enough, are they going to cause some sort of uproar where there would be money and time spent changing the name of the building?” Antelman said. “My concern would be where can we put that money instead.”
Boyle Tippett also expressed concern over the cost of changing the name of the building.
“I can completely neutrally say that the amount of money that would have to go to that would be substantial,” Boyle Tippett said.
Antelman mentioned that possible uses for university resources could be the establishment of an LGBTQ+ center, the dedication of counselors to serving the needs of LGBTQ+ students and the education of undergraduates on the history of the LGBTQ+ community.
Trabant has often celebrated for the good he did for the university. He expanded the size of the student population and added around a dozen buildings to the campus over his two decades as president of the university. The former president is often considered a champion of women’s rights during the period, playing a key role in transitioning women’s athletics from an experimental program to varsity status during his tenure.
It was his successes that were noted when the building was named after him.
Boyle Tippett declined to comment on the 1996 decision of the board of trustees to name the university center after Trabant.
“Universities or really any entity is going to focus on the good and not the bad,” Totoy said.