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What’s in a Name? After Years of Student Activism, Universities Rename Campus Buildings

Dr. Donna Y. Ford, a distinguished professor of education at The Ohio State University, lived near a road called “Plantation.” When she went about her errands, she would actively avoid the street. It didn’t matter if it was the most direct route or how bad traffic was. But when she worked at Vanderbilt University, she didn’t have a choice. She had to pass Confederate Memorial Hall, until the university decided to change the name in 2016.

“Far too many people don’t understand the psychological dilemma that these building names put on students who just want to go to class and learn and get their degrees,” she said. “There’s trauma there.”Jackson Hall 1

After Black Lives Matter protests spread across the country, universities faced an ongoing flood of petitions to change campus building names that honor historic figures tied to slave ownership and racist policies. And many institutions have recently agreed.

James Madison University, for example, announced on July 7 that it would rename three campus buildings named for Confederate leaders: Jackson, Ashby and Maury halls. The buildings have been given temporary names until permanent ones are chosen next year with input from the campus community.

Sophomore Ryan Ritter, the Student Government Association senator,  submitted the Bill of Opinion that led to the name changes. He’d never seen signatures come in so fast.

“In the wake of this national movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, everybody calling to correct the racial inequities that this country has experienced for the entirety of its history, we felt it was more than appropriate …” Ritter said, calling the change “long overdue,” with alumni pushing for new names since 1992. “We wanted to continue that work.”

Other universities are also replacing contentious building names after years of debate, notably the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which lifted a 16-year moratorium on renaming campus buildings, which would have otherwise expired in 2031.

Similarly, Princeton University is removing Woodrow Wilson’s name from Wilson College and its school of public and international affairs, in light of his re-segregation of the federal civil service when he served as the United States’ 28th president. The decision comes five years after student activists occupied the office of Princeton University president Christopher L. Eisgruber to protest Wilson’s legacy on campus, followed by an April 2016 report which kept the names in place.

“Princeton honored Wilson not because of, but without regard to or perhaps even in ignorance of, his racism,” Eisgruber wrote in a statement explaining the university’s pivot. “That, however, is ultimately the problem. Princeton is part of an America that has too often disregarded, ignored, or excused racism, allowing the persistence of systems that discriminate against Black people. When Derek Chauvin knelt for nearly nine minutes on George Floyd’s neck while bystanders recorded his cruelty, he might have assumed that the system would disregard, ignore, or excuse his conduct, as it had done in response to past complaints against him.”

But even as more campuses agree to rename buildings, higher education leaders continue to debate the value of new names.

In his first press conference on July 6, Dr. Jonathan Holloway, Rutgers University’s first Black president – and a historian and African American studies scholar – argued that any university built before the Emancipation Proclamation has ties to slavery, including his institution, which is named after slave owner and Revolutionary War veteran Henry Rutgers.

Holloway said he wouldn’t change the name of the university because “names have value that exceeds someone’s existence,” but to keep the name, the school needs to have candid conversations about its history: “We have to talk about it, period.”

Ultimately, “if I were to walk around feeling bludgeoned by every name I see, I couldn’t get out of bed,” he said. “I’m better than a name on a building. My existence, my humanity, my complexity, cannot be reduced by the fact that Rutgers was a slave owner, that he could not imagine me. That’s his problem.”

To Ford, renaming efforts are “necessary,” both for Black students – who can feel “alienated” and “culturally assaulted” by daily encounters with honored remnants of slavery – and for their peers. But she also described the slew of name changes as “reactionary.” She doesn’t want to see them become “band aid changes,” replacing the deeper work higher education needs to do to tackle persistent racial climate problems.

Universities need to follow name replacements with curriculums that “make sure students are being educated in order to be antiracist,” she said. They also need ongoing diversity training for staff and “purposeful, intentional” efforts to diversify faculty.

“I want schools to address this,” she said. “But I also want them to really stand firm and be proactive, and not just about the names of buildings … I want more to happen.”

As Ritterson put it, “this is only the beginning.”

Sara Weissman can be reached at [email protected].

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