In recent years, college students across the country have called upon universities to rename campus buildings that commemorate individuals who have histories of supporting slavery and other racist and discriminatory programs and policies. The University of Michigan has been no exception. In 2016, University President Mark Schlissel asked the President’s Advisory Committee on University History to review the University’s policies on facility naming in light of the University’s bicentennial. After reviewing University policies on the matter, this committee recommended that a process be created to allow University community members to propose facility names for review to the president’s office. This past month, Schlissel accepted the committee’s recommendations. While The Michigan Daily Editorial Board commends the University for taking this important step, we believe the University should take a more proactive role in investigating problematic building names and make more of an effort to give students and faculty a stronger voice in the decision-making process.
On Feb. 11, after relentless student protests, Yale announced that the university would change the name of its residential college named after John C. Calhoun, the seventh vice president of the United States remembered for his racist views and as a prominent spokesman for slavery. While there have been no similar protests about University of Michigan facilities, we recognize that there are buildings on campus named after figures with controversial histories. Buildings such as C.C. Little — named after a University President Clarence Cook Little, a proponent of eugenics — and Angell Hall — named after University President James Angell, who played a role in crafting the Chinese Exclusion Act — are just a few examples of buildings named after figures who deserve greater scrutiny.
While these are prominent examples we would expect to be proposed for review, we worry that the names of smaller facilities, such as Winchell House in West Quad — named for Alexander Winchell, a 20th-century University professor of geology and paleontology who published many racist works — will be overlooked in the renaming procedure.
In 2008, the University published a set of standards for naming campus facilities in an attempt to provide consistency in the naming process. Under these guidelines, building naming decisions are often initiated by the nine-member Board of Regents and the final decisions ultimately rest with them, too.
In addition, the current standards for naming campus facilities are somewhat vague in order to account for the complexities of the human characters after whom buildings are named. Because the guidelines are open to interpretation, we believe it is not only valuable, but necessary, to have more than the voices of the Board of Regents and President’s Advisory Committee on University History when making these decisions. Furthermore, the few people making naming decisions spend little time in campus buildings compared to students and faculty, who work and study in them — and therefore deal with the implications of each building’s name — every day. Thus, we suggest the University implements a student and faculty committee to work alongside those already involved in order to provide a more inclusive and more informed decision-making process. This is especially important for structures like the Biological Science Building, which is currently under construction and does not have a donor name attached.
When deciding the name of a campus facility, it is crucial that the University finds the right balance in continuing the University’s history while not “honoring” or endorsing the past actions or beliefs of a discriminatory individual. We recognize that it is often hard to judge influential historical figures due to the fluidity of social norms over time. Moreover, if given enough scrutiny, there is potential to find something offensive about any building name or honoree.
That being said, there is still a moral line that should not be crossed. The University should be proactive in changing names of buildings named after individuals who were blatantly racist. While it is important not to forget the past, we believe that renaming a building will not erase the University’s history, but rather create a more inclusive environment where all students can feel comfortable and, in turn, create a productive learning experience. Furthermore, we can remove the name while still acknowledging the building’s history and maintaining a medium to recognize the flaws of our past.
The decision to name or rename a campus facility should not be taken lightly and we hope the University continues to encourage student and faculty voices in the matter. Right now, the only avenue for students and faculty to get involved is by submitting a proposal recommending that buildings be renamed. While this is a step in the right direction, we believe it is not enough. Students must be afforded a more tangible role in these processes, such as a committee that works alongside the Board of Regents and President’s Advisory Committee on University History.
Everyone involved in the naming process must be mindful about how we name our buildings, as legacies and societal views constantly change over time. While it is important not to erase the University’s history, it is crucial that the name of our campus buildings and facilities align with the University of Michigan’s core mission and values.