‘What’s in a Name?’ panel discusses controversial naming issues on college campuses

A panel of distinguished decision-makers and faculty discussed their experiences grappling with the naming of campus buildings and other symbols at a panel titled “What’s in a Name? The Naming and Symbolism Controversy on University Campuses” held at the Yale Law School on Sept. 26. The panel, invited by Yale’s Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming, spoke before a group of students, faculty, staff, administrators, and committee members. 

Professor John Fabian Witt, chair of the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming, moderated the discussion. He noted that the committee, which was established Aug. 1, has the charge to develop principles for determining whether to remove a historical name from a Yale building — in short, to develop “rules of the road” for Yale. As part of its work, committee members have been studying related controversies in the United States and around the world.

Edward L. Ayers, the Tucker-Boatwright Professor in the Humanities and president emeritus at the University of Richmond, observed that his institution’s location in the South requires its leaders to work especially hard on issues of naming and memorialization. He emphasized “getting the history right” before deciding how to use that history. Ayers said he saw the campus controversies not as signs of dysfunction, but as signs of growth.

Daina Ramey Berry, associate professor of history and of African and African Diaspora studies at the University of Texas (UT)-Austin, described the process at that campus to consider statuary. The task force was formed after UT-Austin’s student government passed a resolution calling for the removal of a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. It collected more than 3,000 comments and presented the administration with five options, with the pros and cons of each. UT-Austin’s president decided to move the Davis statue indoors and provide contextualizing information.

Tomiko Brown-Nagin, the Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law and professor of history at Harvard University, served on Harvard Law School’s committee considering whether to change the school’s shield, which was modeled on the crest of a slaveholding family. Key questions in such processes, Brown-Nagin said, include “How do you want to define your community? How does the past meet the present?  What are the fair principles?” She emphasized the importance of student voices in Harvard’s process, as well as the option of adding names and symbols, rather than simply subtracting.

Matthew E. Carnes, associate professor of government and in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University, discussed the university’s actions to address the legacy of slavery in its own history. While that history had been known, he said, “students pushed us forward” and their activism gave new urgency to the efforts. Carnes observed that the “dialogue took us places we didn’t foresee,” and it is linked to broader issues and debates in the nation.

Brent L. Henry, vice president and general counsel, Partners HealthCare System, and vice chair of Princeton’s board of trustees, discussed Princeton’s decision to retain the name of Woodrow Wilson on the School of Public and International Affairs and an undergraduate college. Henry said the board’s committee on naming, which he chaired, considered the question, “How do we achieve a campus community that allows everyone to feel a part of it, and to feel that they belong?” While deciding to keep the Wilson name, the board made clear to the Princeton administration that more needed to be done on diversity and inclusion issues. The administration responded by creating a “pipeline” program for graduate students from under-represented minority groups and a committee to advise on more inclusive naming, art, and programming.

During the Q&A session, participants asked about the challenge of recovering voices that have been silenced in history, whether renaming inhibits conversations about difficult history, and the difference between remembering and memorializing.

Committee on Renaming Principles invites student input

The Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming invites students to several upcoming listening sessions in the residential colleges. Witt, the Allen H. Duffy Class of 1960 Professor of Law, and undergraduate member Dasia Moore ’18 will be present to hear input and suggestions on the committee’s work. The sessions are as follows:

Berkeley:  Oct. 1 at 7 p.m.

Pierson:  Oct. 4 at 7 p.m.

Timothy Dwight:  Oct. 5 at 7 p.m.

Morse/Stiles:  Oct. 5 at 8:30 p.m.

Saybrook:  Oct. 6 at 8:00 p.m.

Witt and Moore have already held sessions in four colleges, including Calhoun. The Committee is also holding a public drop-in session on Tuesday, Oct. 11 at 7 p.m. in the Law School dining hall, 127 Wall St. Students will be able to talk with members in small groups around tables.

Moore is holding open discussion hours in the Pierson College Common Room every Friday 1-2 p.m. The discussion hour is for individuals and small groups of undergraduates who want to discuss renaming principles, the committee’s work, and their hopes and concerns. Students are also invited to email her directly at dasia.moore@yale.edu to set up other times to talk.

The committee’s website is designed to accept comments from everyone, and the committee will read and respond to all comments. Finally, students are welcome to email Chair John Witt directly at john.witt@yale.edu.