Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer are classmates of mine. And in 1996, they both gave enough money to Harvard (Gates gave $15 million, Ballmer $10 million) to build and name a building after their mothers (Mary Maxwell Gates, and Beatrice Dworkin Ballmer).
My experience is a bit different. I have given roughly in the low three figures to my alma mater. I didn’t do life to make money, but I have given Harvard what I could afford. I also talk a lot about my Harvard experience, not to brag, but to enlighten people that yes, there was a Filipino American there in the early 1970s not affiliated with the Marcos dictatorship.
In fact, I appreciate the scholarship I received that enabled me to be one of the first generations among people of color to break the exclusionary wall that Harvard hid behind for most of its nearly 400-year history.
When I was there, I was in dorm crew. Maybe they can name a broom closet after me. I bring up this sensitive topic because last week Harvard released its initial report on a denaming policy for buildings on campus.
This has become a thing in higher ed now that schools are being reminded by their current residents (today’s young woke and diverse students) that schools have yet to deal with the fact they have taken money and named buildings after some real bastards. Or merely racists who were acceptable in their day, like the former President Woodrow Wilson at Princeton.
Even public schools like the “liberal” U.C. Berkeley have seen a number of their buildings up for renaming, including one named for a former university president, David Prescott Barrows.
Barrows was the head of education in the U.S. colonized Philippines charged with teaching English to the young people he considered “illiterate savages.” But Barrows was just the head of a whole cadre of colonizers and racists like Alfred Louis Koerber, Robert Gordon Sproul, and Bernard Moses who were honored with naming rights. Not anymore.
Now Harvard is dealing with its past. Us. And there’s a lot of it.
Harvard Law School had to change its shield insignia when it was revealed it was the family crest of the Royall family, a key benefactor, and slaveholder.
The name of Lowell House is under scrutiny since namesake Abbott Lawrence Lowell has been exposed for his racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic views.
At least two university presidents, Benjamin Wadsworth and Edward Holyoke, were known slaveholders.
The initial Harvard report promises something final in 2022. But it admits that the school has inherited values that are at odds with present day Harvard.
“Harvard benefited from the colonization of Native lands, resources, and remains; Harvard co-existed with—and profited from—slavery for more than two centuries; Harvard reflected and often vigorously embraced widely accepted hierarchies and injustices of gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and sexuality.”
It's an acknowledgment that should be on billboards and attached to every Harvard degree.
But Harvard also knows it must do more.
From the report: “…an end to exclusion is not equivalent to genuine inclusion. History lingers and must be directly confronted if we are to create a more just, equitable, and fully welcoming community in which every member can thrive and contribute to the University’s mission of research, teaching, and service..”
The committee is not taking its work lightly. Here are three essential steps:
(From the report):
•The case for removing an individual’s name will be strongest when the behaviors now seen as morally repugnant are a significant component of that individual’s legacy when viewed in the full context of the namesake’s life.
•The case for denaming is stronger if the namesake’s actions or beliefs we now regard as abhorrent would have been regarded as objectionable in the namesake’s own time.
•A case for denaming is stronger when the entity in question is central to University life and community and to the identity and experience of students, staff, or faculty.
Just as it’s been clear at other schools, denaming/renaming is inevitable.
The question becomes what names replace the bad ones?
I would suggest schools dump the vanity aspect, period. It may get people to give more and put the benefactors name on a marquee building but at what price later?
Dumping vanity means you get the money, not the headache. Ideally, the money should be donated anonymously.
Then there’s no issue. You just got $5 million. It could have been from an earth-hating, industrial polluter who was racist to boot. Anonymity means future climate change warriors/victims/survivors won’t come harassing you.
So what do you name the buildings?
The Art building is Amaretto Brown. The English building is Ebony. The Math building is Maize. Be creative. Chemistry is Chartreuse. No one in two hundred years will question you naming the Physics building the Puce building. Not even if it clashes with Chemistry’s Chartreuse.
It’s just paint. Red brick? Paint the brick. It also solves your universal signage problem. Turn left at the Puce building.
And that brings me back to Gates and Ballmer.
It sounds like they have circumvented the name problem by naming the Maxwell-Dworkin building for electrical engineering, computing and communications for their mothers.
Who hates mothers?
But what if the connection is made to the sons and people see Gates in a different light because of his connections to a certain pedophile. Or they question Ballmer for not winning a championship for the Los Angeles Clippers. Although, shouldn’t we all still be upset that we were forced to use the monopolistic Microsoft’s Internet Explorer against our will?
End vanity. Make all donations anonymous. Family members aren’t anonymous enough. Name buildings after colors. And go beyond Roy G. Biv. Lift up your campus. Be creative. It’s the simple solution to end the renaming problem. You got a problem with Puce?
Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator. He writes for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. You can follow him on Twitter @emailamok