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Institutional Racism and Human Remains

Last week, after an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer brought the situation to light, the Penn Museum and the University of Pennsylvania apologized for keeping human remains recovered from the 1985 police bombing of the Black liberation group MOVE and allowing them to be used for research and teaching, including in an online course offered by Princeton University. This comes as the museum is also reckoning with the fact that it has since 1966 housed skulls collected during the 1830s and 1840s by a physician and anatomy lecturer who used them in an effort to establish white racial superiority; the collection reportedly includes fifty-one skulls of enslaved Africans and several skulls that belonged to Black Philadelphians, all likely dug out of graveyards.

These revelations are deeply troubling but not surprising. It seems likely that many other institutions of higher education in this country have in their possession physical remains and artifacts that were unethically acquired or that resulted from racist practices; almost certainly, they have cultural artifacts of our racist roots. The improper use of human remains is but one manifestation of institutional racism that calls into question the role of higher education faculty in its development and perpetuation.

The AAUP’s Statement on Professional Ethics makes clear that faculty have a responsibility to our students, to our institutions, and to the community at large to promote free inquiry in furtherance of the common good. As faculty, we should be leading the important process of reparation. Housing and using human remains for pedagogical and research purposes without informed consent flies in the face of this obligation.

Accordingly, we call on faculty and academic staff in disciplines that involve using human remains in research and teaching to work with their institutions and disciplinary associations to ensure that they are following disciplinary standards, institutional regulations, and current law. Institutions of higher education must review their practices and, where possible and appropriate, establish policies and processes that are inclusive of family members and respectful of their wishes.

Publication Date: 
Monday, May 3, 2021