The national reckoning over race and privilege that has caused upheaval at schools across the country arrived at Collegiate, one of New York City’s most prestigious private schools, when a group of students of color publicly demanded that the 400-year-old institution “address its own problems with racism and intolerance.”
In response, Collegiate officials created a 17-member task force, which a year later produced an exhaustive 407-page report on the school’s “history and symbols,” filled with graphics, survey results, feedback from scores of people connected to Collegiate.
Then in January, three years after the students’ call for change, the study’s end result arrived in an email to parents and alumni: Collegiate’s mascot had gotten a makeover.
In recent years, schools across the United States, from private schools like Collegiate to public high schools to Ivy League universities, have struggled to adapt to rapidly changing norms on race and privilege by diversifying faculties, broadening curriculums and adopting antiracism guidelines.
Many of Collegiate’s exclusive private school counterparts in New York, which guard their privacy fiercely, have faced their own controversies. At Brearley, Chapin and Spence, among others, troubling testimonies from students of color have been compiled on dedicated social media pages. At Grace Church School and Dalton, antiracism training has led to minor revolts and angry letters.
At Collegiate, it was the school mascot — a winking, peg-legged caricature of a Dutch settler — that emerged as a flash point. The decision to change it was met, predictably, with some outcry — but on both sides.
Some people lamented that what they saw as an important part of Collegiate’s heritage was being erased. They considered the Dutchman mascot as an inoffensive embodiment of school pride and a fond link to tradition at the boys-only institution on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
There were others who supported the initial call for changing the mascot, which was viewed by some as offensive, from its Eurocentric and racist overtones to its crude depiction of a disability, a peg leg. But they saw the result of the extensive research project as a mere makeover that did not confront the broader issues of race and inclusion at Collegiate.
“It does close to nothing to address systemic racism and sociocultural inequality at Collegiate” said Luca Rojas, 32, who graduated from the school in 2008.
While rethinking the mascot was laudable, Mr. Rojas said, changing it was “just skimming the surface of what actually needs to be done to address systemic racism and sociocultural inequality at Collegiate, which only makes it feel that much more hollow and performative.”
Others saw merit in the move. A more recent graduate, Rifat Islam, 20, called the mascot issue “a difficult balancing act for the school.”
Mr. Islam, who graduated from Collegiate in 2019 and is now a junior at Yale, added: “It’s more important for me that we got the conversation going.”
The task force report, which is posted on Collegiate’s website, also refers to plans for creating a second task force devoted to the school’s policies for admitting and retaining students, but offers no other details.
Officials at Collegiate, a K-12 school with about 650 students, did not respond to messages seeking comment for this article on changes to the curriculum, faculty or other aspects of the school.
Founded in 1628, Collegiate has a long list of prominent graduates that includes one of America’s founding fathers, New York City’s first governor, John F. Kennedy Jr. and the actor David Duchovny. With tuition and fees of about $60,000 a year, it is consistently ranked one of the best private schools in the country. Most graduates go on to top-tier colleges.
A main objection to the mascot was that it was known to many as “Peg Leg Pete” and widely believed to represent Peter Stuyvesant, the wooden-legged 17th-century Dutch leader of New Amsterdam whose legacy has come under growing criticism because of his ownership of slaves, support for slavery and antisemitic policies.
Stuyvesant’s name is still used by the prestigious public Stuyvesant High School, where sports teams are known as the Peglegs, and by the sprawling Stuyvesant Town residential complex on Manhattan’s East Side.
The Collegiate controversy began in February 2019, when the organization for students of color, Jamaa, said in a letter published in the school paper that “Collegiate must address its own problems with racism and intolerance.”
The Jamaa letter, which was signed by 28 students, called for a more inclusive, less Eurocentric curriculum, and greater diversity among teachers and administrators beyond “cisgender heterosexual White men.”
In 1969, the letter noted, there had been two Black students in the graduating class. In 2019, there were also two Black students in the graduating class.
“Collegiate is a place where Black kids get their hair gawked at and constantly touched without their permission as if they were animals in a petting zoo,” the letter said.
Among the nine steps the students asked the school to take was No. 5: “a serious re-evaluation of our school mascot.” The letter called Stuyvesant “a vehement antisemite” who “ruled by hate and racism.”
“Is this the man we want to represent Collegiate?” the letter asked. “Do his values align with ours?”
The report called the Dutchman mascot “a ubiquitous reference in the life of the school, synonymous with the school itself.”
The report said the task force — which included students, staff members and Collegiate trustees — had “embraced an anti-racist mission and sought to have students and teachers wrestle with whiteness, racial privilege and bias.”
A historian hired as part of the effort scrutinized Collegiate’s place in history amid problematic elements like Stuyvesant’s personal legacy and the existence of slavery in early Dutch Manhattan.
The task force surveyed and interviewed more than 1,600 students, parents, faculty members and alumni about the mascot and other school symbols, which, it noted, “often become a proxy for feelings just beneath the surface, be it at school or in society, particularly regarding race and power.”
Some of those who were interviewed were asked to offer a word or phrase regarding the Dutchmen nickname and mascot. The responses ranged from positive (“iconic,” “history,” “ever-present”) to negative (“racism,” “antisemitism,” “embarrassing”).
Finally, after three years of study and redesign work, a modernized image of the Dutchman was sent out to thousands of parents and alumni last month.
Gone were aspects that some people had called offensive, including the original character’s peg leg and even his identity: The new figure is shown in silhouette, with his face obscured.
As part of the same review process, Collegiate abandoned other traditions, including references to God in the secular school’s motto and on its official seal.
The report also recommended addressing other offensive parts of Collegiate’s history, including a fight song printed in a 1964 school handbook that the task force said was “worth re-examining.” The song hails Collegiate’s colonial forefathers, “those sturdy Old Dutchmen” who arrived in America and “announced to the wandering red men, ‘You’ve got to get out of the way.’”
Chinmay Deshpande, a 2020 graduate and task force member, said that despite the “undeniably objectionable” connection to Stuyvesant, there had been considerable resistance to changing the mascot. Those who opposed the move included many alumni who emailed school officials asking why the issue was being considered at all.
“If that’s the response,” Mr. Deshpande, 19, said, “then I’m very pessimistic for systemic change at Collegiate.”
Alumni reaction to the mascot change was mixed.
Some graduates told the task force they supported changing the mascot; others said that doing so would be caving in to political correctness. Some suggested keeping the mascot but using it to educate students about Collegiate’s complicated history.
“I wonder why we are spending so much time and effort and money on this?” one alumnus said in the task force report. “The future excellence of our students is not tied to a sports symbol, but to how we interact with each other in and outside of the classroom.”
Another graduate, in an apparent dig at Jamaa’s 2019 complaints, said, “Don’t let some kid trying to add a paragraph to his college essay destroy 200 plus years of tradition.”