Roundtable: What's in a name?

Monday, December 7, 2015 - 8:04pm

C.C. Little

C.C. Little Buy this photo
Illustration by Scotty Hardin

 

In recent weeks, controversy has brewed at Princeton University surrounding its School of Public and International Affairs being named in honor of President Woodrow Wilson. Given the recent outcry surrounding Wilson's racist policies, there has been significant debate as to whether his name should remain attached to the school. In this roundtable discussion, Daily Editorial Board members Ben Keller, Payton Luokkala and Melissa Scholke give their takes on the situation at Princeton and discuss whether the University should also examine the names on its buildings. 

KELLER: It’s commonplace to honor individuals by placing their names on buildings. However, when information is brought forth that damages the credibility of these people, should we immediately rush to strip them of their honor and rename such buildings? Or is it at all possible to debate the lives of these men and women to possibly come to some sort of compromise?

The recent revelation at Princeton University regarding the presidency of Woodrow Wilson has prompted national outcries for the Wilson School of Public and International Affairs to change its name. Wilson, also a former president at Princeton, has come under scrutiny for racist policies he enacted during his time in the White House. However, he’s also remembered for reforms that laid the groundwork for the future policies of highly revered presidents, like President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. 

Herein lies the conflict: Does Wilson’s racism automatically disqualify him from name recognition? Or does his stature as a president of the United States and the forerunner of lauded policies supersede his discriminatory practices?

Roosevelt is a prime example of this conundrum. For decades, he has been extolled as one of our nation’s greatest presidents. He led us out of the Great Depression and through World War II. However, many seem to forget that he ordered the internment of innocent Japanese Americans during the same war. Where’s the outrage over this blatantly racist action by FDR? Should we strip his name off of buildings or remove his face from our currency?

I would assume most people would say that sort of action would be unnecessary given Roosevelt’s impact on this nation beyond his mistakes. Nevertheless, the line between what qualifies a figure in our nation’s history as good or bad is too arbitrary. Therefore, the decision to abolish a titular honor given to a man or woman of the past must be left to the respective institution that harbors that recognition.  

This constant battle of what defines our predecessors takes place on more campuses than just Princeton. Take the University as an example.

The C.C. Little Building is named for one of our past University presidents, Clarence Cook Little. His presidency in and of itself is virtually inconsequential and didn’t include significant alterations to campus. However, Little was an avowed believer of the eugenics movement — an early 20th century development that advocated for the sterilization of humans whose offspring were deemed “unfit for society.” 

Now we come to the all-important question: Does Little’s affiliation with the eugenics movement (even serving as president of the American Eugenics Society) outweigh his stature as a past president of the University and thus justify the removal of his name from the C.C. Little Building? I believe that it certainly could, but other options should also be brought forth that can give Little the recognition he deserves as a past University president while also acknowledging his misguided beliefs. A portrait in the Michigan Union could suffice along with a web history of our past presidents if the name of the building were to be changed.

There’s no certain criteria to decide when someone deserves to have their name on a building of higher education or whether to have it removed. Clearly, these situations need to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis in order to ensure that the people who laid the foundation for our lives aren’t unjustly recognized or deprived of that recognition.

With so many conflicting facts and stances being used in the same debate, it’s important to remember an idea that is encompassed in a statement made by David Wilkins, the chairman of the Clemson University Board of Trustees, when a building name at that university was engulfed in controversy: “Every great institution is built by imperfect craftsmen. Stone by stone they add to the foundation so that over many, many generations, we get a variety of stones … Some of our historical stones are rough and even unpleasant to look at. But they are ours and denying them as part of our history does not make them any less so.”

SCHOLKE: The recent student protests at Princeton — and the subsequent public outcries — have ignited a broader, overdue discussion about both the accuracy of the histories we are typically presented with in society and the merits of the historical figures whose names and legacies are memorialized in this fashion. I think the conversation initiated at Princeton is absolutely necessary and needs to be echoed at numerous institutions of higher education across the country, including the University.

It’s important for us, as a society, to acknowledge that our system of recording and retelling history is flawed and has overlooked the viewpoints and experiences of numerous groups. Adorning prestigious buildings with the names of prominent figures without a doubt memorializes these individuals and their legacies for generations. Many of these individuals — a list that includes U.S. presidents, university presidents, prominent policymakers and influential scientists — certainly deserve to be praised for their respective achievements and contributions to society. However, society cannot ignore the fact that the practice of placing these names on notable buildings, more often than not, presents and perpetuates a sanitized representation of these individual’s legacies that continues to exclude their more questionable actions and the negative consequences of those actions.

Here at the University, negative aspects of the pasts of figures such as President Gerald R. Ford, C.C. Little, Sam Zell and Sanford Weill could be similarly scrutinized. Perhaps the use of C.C. Little’s name on a building serves as one example of a legacy that we may need to reconsider.

To automatically strip these historical figures of this honor would be a hasty and extreme attempt to erase details of history that we rightfully should be ashamed of. Even if we are ashamed, each side of this complicated argument deserves recognition. As Ben suggested, the individuals we’re attempting to honor are flawed, and given the context of the time, their ideologies may not have been viewed as dishonorable to the same degree that they are now. However, this in no way stands as an excuse to allow their achievements to eclipse their more reprehensible actions.

LUOKKALA: Earlier, Keller questioned at what point one should draw the line that separates important figures from being honored or scorned. This is the contention; it is entirely subjective as to where such a line is drawn, but subjective to what? The individual, the society, the time? The answer to this question is difficult precisely because it isn’t permanent across time or to any constellation of people. This is where I get stuck. Keller continued that we are engaged in a “constant”  discussion of what defines our past leaders. 

It’s the use of the word constant that is troubling. Because I think the problem here is that the battle hasn’t been constant; the issue hasn’t been properly attended to throughout time. While some thought certainly went into renaming a building after C.C. Little many years ago, I find it difficult to believe that the fact that the former University president studied eugenics in his spare time was discussed thoroughly as a factor. I think this because I cannot imagine how our own University thought we would be completely satisfied with the honor they chose to bestow.

The problem, again, is that this discussion hasn’t been constant. Like Scholke acknowledged, this is in part due to the inadequate way we keep history. One simple story is kept and retold; history is often painted in broad strokes of entirely “good” or entirely “bad.” These hidden histories are a problem not only because they exist, but also because we’re just now finding out about them.

This recognition provides no easy solution. We’re unable to change the lack of forethought in those before us, nor can we uncover all of the lost histories. Though it isn’t a solution to our past, we must start getting rid of the black-and-white manner in which we currently view important figures, to prevent current revelations that show us a history we hadn’t known existed.  

Through all of this, I have managed to evade coming to any conclusion: Keep the names or don’t. While we can acknowledge that beliefs and practices of individuals such as C.C. Little and Woodrow Wilson are wrong, the debate against changing the names includes valid points as well. Like I previously mentioned, people aren’t one-dimensional, which makes it difficult to judge whether or not they are “worthy” of the honor. It has also been questioned whether changing the names would hide history even further.  

In conclusion, amid the controversies erupting across the nation, I ask: Given that we have a limited account of history and an arbitrary ability to judge others, when, if ever, is it right to take action? The answer is: Until we can no longer ignore the problem.