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NEIU faculty, students ask for renaming of Walesa building
by Matt Simonette

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Faculty and students of Northeastern Illinois University on April 10 spoke out in a favor of a proposal, which had already been rejected by the school's president, to rename a building named after former Polish President Lech Walesa.

The objections, raised at NEIU's Board of Trustees meeting, held at Jacob Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies, 700 E. Oakwood Blvd., come over a year after Walesa made negative remarks about gays in the Polish media. NEIU's University Advisory Committee on March 7 of this year passed a motion recommending to President Sharon Hahs that she recommend to the Trustees that the building be renamed.

In March 2013, Walesa said that gay politicians in Poland had no right to a prominent position in politics there, even suggesting that they "sit to the rear" of parliament chambers or "behind a wall." He refused to back pedal from the comment, maintaining that he was not homophobic the following day.

"I will not apologize to anyone," Walesa said. "All I said ( was ) that minorities, which I respect, should not have the right to impose their views on the majority. I think most of Poland is behind me."

NEIU faculty and students voiced their objections quickly and soon after the comments circulated a petition demanding that Lech Walesa Hall, 3701 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., be renamed. The building was dedicated in 2009, in a ceremony commemorating the fall of communism in Poland that Walesa attended.

University President Sharon Hahs initially said that Walesa's remarks were contrary to the spirit of diversity that NEIU was trying to foster. Public forums were held on the matter and the school passed a number of resolutions in response to the matter, among them having a permanent display about the forums' subject matter and starting a new LGBT center, which set to open in spring 2015. Nevertheless, school officials ultimately chose not to change the name of the building.

On April 4 of this year, Hahs released a statement about the recent UAC recommendation: "Overall, I believe the Dialogue process and Outcomes reflect that President Walesa's comments neither define the man nor cancel his achievements. They also reflect that we agree that those comments remain contrary to our Values, and that we re-affirm our support for inclusion on an equal basis of all members of our community… A process that was not only thoughtful, collaborative and respectful but also made a significant contribution to the University should not be undone by a single vote. The issues raised by President Walesa's comments have had a fair hearing. At this point we will focus our attention on moving forward with the Outcomes determined last year through the Dialogue process."

But nine individuals, whom Professor Shelley Bannister of the university's Justice Studies Dept. said represented about 400 people who'd signed a petition asking for the name-change, spoke at the April 10 meeting in favor of a name change.

"I join the Polish Student Association in recognition of Mr. Walesa's admirable work," Bannister said. "However, last spring, Mr. Walesa made, and then confirmed, homophobic remarks. As a lesbian, I find his comments personally offensive and frankly hurtful. More importantly though, Mr. Walesa's comments, and our honoring of him, remind our gay and lesbian students that that they are considered [to be] lesser, with fewer rights—that hurts when it's coming from your own school."

She added that the process is not as resolved as Hahs indicated, by virtue of the there being so many protestors at the meeting and the recent UAC vote. Bannister then requested that the name removal be added to the agenda of the June Board of Trustees meeting.

NEIU student Calvin Johnson said that most of his coursework was in Lech Walesa Hall.

"As a black gay man, I cannot forget the harmful comments that this man made last year," he added. "He said that gay people have no right to a prominent position, and should sit at the back of the room, or even behind a wall. Honoring leaders before me, like Rosa Parks, I refuse to sit in back of the bus. I refuse to sit behind a wall. … The name of someone who wants us to sit behind a wall remains on a building. That's wrong."

Two individuals also spoke in favor of retaining the building name. Board of Trustees members do not respond to comments made during Public Comment portions of their bimonthly meetings, so whether or not the matter will be added to their June agenda was not yet announced.

Student Mike Lackovich, who is gay, had been following the matter and said he had been disturbed by the Walesa's comments as well, and hoped the name change would go through.

"When I saw those, that really me question whether I wanted to continue in school there or not," Lackovich said.

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