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University official who spoke slur resigns

BRISTOL, R.I. -- A former trustee at Roger Williams University said the longtime chairman of the board was forced to resign this week after he uttered a racist slur at a May meeting.

This week, Ralph R. Papitto stepped down after more than 40 years on the board, including the last 18 as chairman. The 80-year-old, for whom the university's law school is named, said he was retiring because of his age and a desire to spend more time with his family.

But Dr. Barbara H. Roberts, who served as a trustee for two years and was Papitto's former cardiologist, told The Providence Journal that Papitto was forced out after using a racial slur about black people during a May 2 trustees meeting.

At the time, Papitto and the trustees were discussing a report that criticized the board's lack of diversity. Roberts said Papitto became agitated and used the epithet. Papitto refused to comment to the Journal about the epithet and said he left the board of his own accord.

"This is a private institution and we consider board meeting discussions confidential," he told the Journal. "I stepped down because the time has come."

In a July 2 letter to Roberts, Papitto wrote that he had "apologized to the board for a highly inappropriate statement I made at a private session of the board."

"Any further publication itself is potentially tortious activity that can only harm the university and will be considered a serious negative action," he wrote.

In the letter, Papitto said Roberts had "maligned" him and said, "I have cut no deals with anyone and don't intend to."

Papitto, who founded a Fortune 500 company, Nortek Inc., has given more than $7 million to the university.

In April, the university received a formal "Notice of Concern" from a regional accrediting organization, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges . The association warned university officials that the Board of Trustees must start following its own bylaws and appoint a more diverse board or the association could take action that could jeopardize the institution's accreditation.

Roberts said the trustees were discussing the report when Papitto became agitated about the call to add more women and minorities to the board.

"He started saying, 'They want us to add more poor kids and they want us to add more, . . . ' " Roberts said, adding that the remark concluded with a racial slur.