University community debates building names' legacy after new policy
University of Michigan community members responded to a new policy that allows new names to be considered for academic buildings with praise and opposition.
After a year of consideration and planning, the President’s Advisory Committee on University History unveiled a new process to review requests to change the names of buildings on campus. The intent of the policy — approved by University President Mark Schlissel earlier this week — is to address the dismay associated with buildings named after individuals who were known to have discriminated against minorities.
In a University press release, Schlissel emphasized the thoroughness of the request reviewing process.
"It is immensely important to me, and to the entire university community, that we take a scholarly approach to any review of historical building names and put that review in the appropriate context," he stated.
Advisory Committee Chair Terry McDonald, director of the Bentley Historical Library, said the development of the process is part of a larger national conversation on controversial building names and legacies on college campuses. In 2015, Georgetown University renamed two buildings originally named for school presidents who sold slaves to settle debts, while Yale University came under fire last summer for housing students in a residence hall named after John C. Calhoun, one of the most prominent defenders of slavery in the decades preceding the Civil War.
“There has been a tremendous national consideration of questions about whether or not buildings should be named after people whose actions in their own time were controversial,” McDonald said. “One important context of this is the national reconsideration of what it means when you memorialize someone on your campus, which is different than teaching history or something like that.”
Any member of the University community can submit a proposal to the president to change the name of a building. The president then decides whether to refer the case to the committee. The committee developed several guiding principles with which they may evaluate the proposal including pedagogy, interpretation, due diligence and consistency.
McDonald specifically highlighted the principle of pedagogy, which maintains that the names of University buildings should allow students to learn about history and people who have contributed to the school.
“Every name is a teachable moment,” he said. “Our question is: ‘What is it that this name teaches on this campus? Why would that name be important to be remembered?’”
Former Physics Prof. Jens Zorn wrote in an email interview he disagrees with the former Dennison Building’s name switch to Weiser Hall in 2014 after a significant donation from Regent Ron Weiser.
“My main issue is that we are diminishing the history of our University by entirely removing the name of an honored, distinguished professor from a building that has carried that name for many decades,” Zorn wrote.
The high-rise section of the building is undergoing a renovation and will no longer be used for physics studies like it was in the past, while the lower portion will remain unchanged.
Zorn wrote he agrees with changing the name of the high-rise portion to Weiser to recognize the donor. However, he opposes the name change of the lower portion of the building, seeing as that portion is not undergoing a change.
“The low-rise portion is clearly separate; its appearance is not being altered,” he wrote. “Its use for physics education remains much as it was for many years. My colleagues and I believe that the low-rise building should retain the Dennison name. This would respect our University's tradition without diminishing the honor to Weiser.”
Students expressed frustration last spring over the University’s decision to name the new Central Campus site of the Trotter Multicultural Center the Bernstein-Bendit Hall after Regent Mark Bernstein and his wife, Rachel Bendit, who donated $3 million to the center’s construction. Many protested the name change. William Trotter, a Black activist and co-founder of the Niagara Movement, a prominent civil rights organization, is the only Black eponym of a University building. Bernstein and Bendit later withdrew their gift in response to student concern.
LSA junior Grant Strobl, national chairman of Young Americans for Freedom, disagreed with the concern surrounding the name change, arguing the Bernstein family should have been able donate to the University without a problem, given that they were supporting multiculturalism.
“For somebody like the Bernstein family, if we really want to embrace multiculturalism, shouldn’t we accept a donation from somebody who is clearly supporting (it)?” Strobl asked. “Why does the color of your skin matter if someone is clearly financially supporting multicultural initiatives? Furthermore, how are we going to fund multicultural initiatives if the people who donate to those initiatives aren’t being respected. It’s very ironic to preach multiculturalism while not accepting somebody just because of the color of their skin.”
Strobl said he believes the content of students’ education is more important than the names of academic buildings.
“I can say the great thing about studying at the University of Michigan is when you learn history, you learn about the things we have gotten wrong and the things we have gotten right,” he said. “Part of the University’s mission is to pursue truth, and students learn how to be leaders and best in our society, and whether or not buildings are named for certain people doesn't really matter in terms of the education we’re getting to change our world.”
Students also question Clarence C. Little, the contentious eponym of the C.C. Little Science Building. Little, a former University president, is often criticized for his support for eugenics, a study which today is usually regarded as racist. Pharmacy student Maisha Rahman was shocked to find Little served as President of the American Eugenics Society. Rahman takes most of her classes in the C.C. Little Science Building and appreciates the new policy.
“A lot of the buildings that are named after those people — those people, I don’t think, are the best role models for students in those buildings,” she said.
After multiple bouts of racist flyers spread on campus last semester, faculty at the College of Pharmacy held sessions when students could talk about the incident. Rahman expressed discomfort with the seemingly “oxymoronic” dichotomy of well-intentioned events held in a building named after Little.
“You’re doing an event for students to talk about racist flyers on campus, and then you have a building named after somebody who could be called a racist,” she said.
She said students may feel uncomfortable with the way some of these names have been normalized, as many students are unaware of University history that is still relevant to problems on campus today.
“These are things that I feel like have been ingrained into the University … but when you uncover that stuff, it can be really harmful as a student,” she said. “They may feel that they don’t belong here, or when they’re seeing hatred on campus, and then you’re going to school and this is the history of your building. Everyone’s acting like it’s normal — that is problematic.”
McDonald predicted the new initiative will raise questions as to who people are in general, or what the significance of a person being associated with a certain building is. He said questions about the school’s history fit well with the spirit of this year’s bicentennial celebration.
“(The committee was) unanimously of the view that questions like this should be welcomed,” he said. “It’s a positive thing that these questions be raised. We think, particularly at this moment, in this year, when we’re reflecting on the University’s history, we think it’s perfectly appropriate and fine if people have questions.”
In line with such concerns, University alum Buddy Moorehouse highlighted the story of Fielding H. Yost, a former University football coach and athletic director, for whom Yost Ice Arena is named.
Moorehouse co-directed a 2012 documentary called “Black and Blue: The Story of Gerald Ford, Willis Ward and the 1934 Michigan-Georgia Tech Game,” recounting a football game when Yost — the athletic director at the time — agreed to bench Willis Ward, a Black athlete who many called the team’s best player. Ward went on to become the head of the civil rights division at Ford Motor Company, a state judge in Wayne County and a member of the University of Michigan Athletic Hall of Honor.
Moorehouse noted Jim Crow-era laws used to be very prominent in college football, and oftentimes Southern teams refused to play against Black players.
In the titular 1934 football game, Georgia Tech demanded Willis Ward’s removal from the game.
Moorehouse said the story of Willis Ward is a story that has been “lost to history” but is certainly relevant to the potential building name changes.
“Fielding Yost was a racist,” he said. “There is no question about it. He did a terrible thing back in 1934. He was the son of a Confederate soldier … and he kind of brought the Southern attitudes on race with him.”
Moorehouse made sure to note there was certainly opposition to this incident from faculty and students at the time. And though he loves University traditions, Moorehouse believes the new policy will prompt more students to confront history.
“I have a tremendous love for the University and its history and traditions,” he said. “But, by that same token, I do like the fact that there is now a policy place, a procedure in place, for us to look at things like this. I’m not advocating we change the name of Yost (Ice Arena), but I think now that this procedure and policy is in place, that it would be a good thing to have that discussion.”
He said if it ever came to renaming the facility, there would be no one better than Willis Ward to honor.