On Monday, April 12, the Board of Regents voted to remove the Nabit name from the Nabit Art Building, following a guilty plea the previous Friday to transportation of an individual to engage in prostitution. Charles Nabit (C’77) was active in fundraising and recruitment for the University for over two decades, and served as Chair of the Board of Regents until 2014. The Board of Regents will not release a statement regarding the Nabit name removal.
As students walked to class Tuesday, April 13, passersby along Georgia Avenue noticed that a stone sign on campus had been hastily altered. Its sandstone facade bearing the name “Nabit Art Building” was gone, exposing jagged rock and bare cement. On a plaque next to the door of the building, Nabit’s name had also been taped over with black electrical tape, leaving a plaque that simply reads “Arts Building.” Another plaque bearing Nabit’s name is also missing from the exterior of the building.
The Art Building’s namesake and donor, Charles “Chuck” Nabit, had pleaded guilty three days prior to federal charges brought against him in June of 2020 for transportation of an individual to engage in prositution. A release by the Department of Justice announced on Friday, April 9, 2021, that Nabit, a Baltimore-based financier who previously owned a drug treatment center, pleaded guilty to paying at least $90,000 for commercial sex with multiple women who struggled with drug addiction.
While a statement was released acknowledging Nabit’s arrest in June, the University announced that it would not take action regarding the Nabit building until a “resolution of the case” at a later date. Laurie Saxton, director of news and public relations, told The Purple that the name removal was authorized on Monday, April 12, in response to Nabit’s guilty plea.
Saxton said, “In their swift action to remove the name upon the resolution of the charges against Mr. Nabit, the Regents have demonstrated their determination to uphold the values that the University expects of its students, community members, and alumni. In doing so, they demonstrated their strong and continued commitment to fostering a community in which all members feel safe, supported, and welcome, as well as their steadfast resolve against sexual assault, intolerance, and harassment.”
Saxton said she did not expect the Regents to release a statement regarding their decision. The current Chair of the Board of Regents Reid Funston (C’86) declined on behalf of the regents to comment on Nabit’s removal. “We feel that our decision speaks for itself,” Funston said.
On Nabit’s role in the University, Vice President for University Relations Jay Fisher (C’79) said, “Senior administrators knew Chuck like they know other active volunteers and members of our governing board.”
“Anything that he has done in his personal life is not connected to any service that he provided to the University. But the fact that his name was on a building in an honorific way, the decision was made that that was not an appropriate place to have an honorific name. But he’s still an alumnus, he’s not erased from the records,” he said.
Nabit’s 2003 pledge of $250,000 kick-started the effort to get a sought-after arts building, which was widely publicized in alumni news and University announcements at the time. However, Nabit’s contributions to the University go beyond a name on the Art Building.
In 1997, the Nabit Foundation made a $250,000 gift to the University to establish the Nabit Scholarship, which was donated in honor of his parents. The next year, Nabit was elected as vice-president for the Sewanee Annual Fund on the Associated Alumni board. Fisher said that the Nabit Scholarship is still in effect and has not been discussed for removal or renaming by the University.
Beginning in the early 2000s, Nabit was an enthusiastic recruiter for the University in the Baltimore area, where a handful of prep schools were targeted. In a Baltimore Sun article titled “Private schools heed call of South,” Sewanee’s dean of admissions at the time, David Lesesne, identifies Nabit as a key part of the University’s success in recruiting “full-payers,” students whose parents can afford to pay full tuition for a liberal arts experience.
In a period of five years, from 2001-2006, Sewanee had established a place in the Baltimore market, with all but one Maryland student from that time recruited from a private school. In 2007, the University created a varsity lacrosse team in a tactical bid for more students. A former admissions employee who recruited in the Baltimore area said, “The University expanding to lacrosse was a bit of this push and pull of, “If we have lacrosse we can get more students from this area and from these specific prep schools in DC and Baltimore.” That was part of the drive to recruit more students from that area who have money, who have the ability to support the University.”
Nabit offered his 40-room North Baltimore mansion for Sewanee recruiters to host receptions for prospective students, which Lesesne said helped Baltimore parents feel comfortable about sending their child to Sewanee: “They come in and say, ‘Well, someone’s doing pretty well from that institution.'”
The former employee said that Nabit hosted large receptions in his home both for high school counselors to meet with Sewanee recruiters, and for prospective students and parents. They said, “My perception of it all is that he became wealthy, and as he became wealthy, he felt influence and wanted to use that influence with the school, with his own achievement to promote Sewanee.”
“There are other alums who are way more active in the whole admissions process– they want to contact students and refer students. He wasn’t really like that, his was more for show. Like, ‘Hey, use my house, I’ll pay for things.’ I think it was more about showing off his status,” they said.
Shortly after the success of the Baltimore recruitment turn, Nabit was elected to the Board of Regents in 2008, before becoming the Chair from 2012 to 2014. While Fisher said Nabit has not been as active with recruitment since his time as Regent, Associate Dean of Admissions Lisa Burns said that Nabit hosted a reception for prospective students as late as the spring of 2018. The University was also planning a Nabit-funded project in 2020. Jessica Wohl, associate professor of art, said that Nabit donated money to construct a patio in Wiggins Hall, an art building adjacent to his namesake. After news broke of his arrest, Wohl said the University alerted the art department that the Wiggins expansion would not move forward.
Wohl said that the art department was alerted of the name change by the Dean of Students on Monday after the Regents’ decision, but received no further information. “I have no idea what the building I work in is called,” she said. “I haven’t heard anything from a University official about the name of the building.”
Burns said that the Office of Admissions was also alerted on Monday and told to remove Nabit’s name from admissions publications, particularly the promotional “Field Guide” sent to high school seniors. “I didn’t know [the name removal] even happened until I received a notice that we needed to change the name in our publications. I don’t know who sat at that table, I don’t know who else got that notification,” Burns said.
“As an employee, you have confidence that they’re making the right decisions and they’re moving the University forward where it needs to go, and in this case this is the decision that they made,” Burns said. She said that, as the office was removing Nabit’s name from publications, “We honestly didn’t think much about it, we just said ‘Okay, we’ll do it.’”
Wohl said, “I actually felt quite proud of our institution that when there was a guilty admission, they acted so quickly to take the sign down. I thought that was pretty fast action. That’s something to be celebrated in my opinion,” she said. “But why not then, if you’re going to go to the lengths to take the sign down overnight, why not talk about it?”
“I’m just really shocked that they’re not going to issue a statement. I think this community deserves more than that,” Wohl said.
“It almost looks worse, I think, to not acknowledge it in some way. It looks like you’re covering something up. Let’s just be honest with the stories that are happening here. How we handle particular obstacles becomes part of the narrative of this place, and it sends a message to our current students and to our prospective students.”