A Building by Any Other Name

The Black Lives Matter protests inspired activists to demand the removal of controversial names from campus buildings. Many universities have established practices to guide them.

November 18, 2022
A group of Black students surround Myra Harris, a Black woman, and hold a sign reading "Welcome home Ms. Harris"
Members of the Towson University community pose with Myra Harris, the new namesake of a Towson dormitory that was stripped of its previous name following student protests.
(Towson University)

Students, staff, faculty and alumni of Towson University in Maryland gathered last month to celebrate the renaming of two dormitories, now called Barnes Hall and Harris Hall, after the university’s first two Black graduates.

The dorms had been named for two historic Marylanders, William Paca and Charles Carroll, both of whom signed the Declaration of Independence and held roles in state and national government. But both men also enslaved people, which drove students to push the university to change the buildings’ names.

Amid a wave of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, Towson administrators announced they would appoint a committee to research the two men’s legacies and determine whether they aligned with the university’s values. The committee eventually voted unanimously to strike the names from the dormitories, a move that was backed by the university’s student, staff and faculty leadership organizations and, later, the University System of Maryland Board of Regents.

It was not the first time student activists convinced their university to remove a name from a building because its namesake had done something harmful. Duke University scrapped the name of industrialist and outspoken white supremacist Julian Carr from an academic building in 2018. Woodrow Wilson’s name was removed from Princeton University’s public policy school in 2020. And just this week, Cabrillo College in California announced it would change its name to distance itself from Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, an explorer who used slave labor and whose expeditions “set the stage for colonial conquest of California,” according to a report by the committee that studied the name.

As more institutions face calls to banish the names of controversial figures from campus, many are developing new policies to guide the process and determine when it is appropriate to remove a building’s name—sometimes referred to as “denaming” or “unnaming.”

While many colleges and universities have long-established policies in place to determine how they name facilities, scholarships, programs and more, denaming policies are rarer, often springing up only after advocates start pushing for a building’s name to be changed. The University of Maryland system, for example, added name-removal procedures to its existing naming policy a few months after the Towson committee began researching the backgrounds of Paca and Carroll.

The policies seek to lend objectivity and fairness to the often divisive process of changing a building’s name. In nearly every case of denaming, some members of the campus community argue that keeping the name of a historical slaveholder or white supremacist on a building is equivalent to their institution endorsing those actions and beliefs. Students of color may feel especially unwelcome, or even unsafe, stepping into a facility emblazoned with the name of, say, a politician who advocated for segregation.

Meanwhile, others believe that removing those names is analogous to erasing the important roles those individuals may have had in the history of the region or university. Individuals with longstanding connections—including alumni, trustees, donors and long-time employees—may object to changing the identity of an institution they know and love. 

Denaming policies, therefore, provide a framework for determining whether a particular name truly contradicts the university’s mission and values. 

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“I think it’s really important to have a process. Many campuses have gone through the process of developing a policy, developing procedures, so that there’s transparency,” said Vernon Hurte, Towson’s vice president of student affairs.

Denaming Processes

In a review of several denaming policies developed since the summer of 2020, Inside Higher Ed found many similarities. Chief among them: a stipulation that buildings should be denamed very rarely and only when necessary.

“Removing a naming designation is a serious step that cannot be taken lightly or hastily. It should occur only under exceptional and narrow circumstances,” reads the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s name-removal policy. The Board of Trustees established the policy in 2020, just after lifting a moratorium on changing building names. Shortly thereafter, UNC removed the names of four white supremacists from campus buildings.

Most universities begin the denaming process by offering students and other campus constituents the opportunity to submit requests for a building name change, via a letter to the administration or an online form. (In most cases, trustees or the president can also initiate the process.)

Then the president or another administrator typically decides if the request has merit; if it does, the official will appoint a committee—which often includes students, alumni and faculty members, as well as outside experts—to research the history of the namesake.

“Whatever process you have in place should be representative of the campus,” said Hurte. “For us, we are really strong on shared governance … I think it adds credibility to the review.”

Committee members consider a number of factors, including how central the bad actions are to the honoree’s legacy, whether those actions were considered conventional back when the building was named and whether keeping the name on the building would negatively impact community members.

Some committees are asked to make a recommendation to the president and board, while others simply present their findings. Ultimately, the president or board has the final say.

“The president and the board are the final arbiters of a decision of this magnitude,” said Elizabeth Bulette, a higher education leadership consultant who specializes in decision-making processes. “The board, because it is responsible for the oversight of the institutional mission; the president, because he or she is responsible for carrying out the decision. He or she will receive both the good or the bad that comes of it.”

Not every policy clarifies how a building should be renamed once its name is removed. Some universities revert to their existing naming policies, while others have developed new protocols specifically for renaming.

For example, when UNC removed the name of Charles Brantley Aycock, a former North Carolina governor who was a staunch supporter of segregation, from a residence hall in the summer of 2020, it was renamed Residence Hall One in Lower Quad. Since then, however, UNC has established a renaming process that allows the public to submit name ideas, which a committee then reviews. Under that process, Residence Hall One finally received a new name in late 2021: McClinton Residence Hall, after Hortense McClinton, the university’s first Black professor, who worked in the School of Social Work for nearly two decades.

A similar process, including public submissions, was used to select the names of Harris and Barnes for the Towson dorms.

“When the names were announced, the feedback from the campus community was so positive,” Hurte recalled. “A lot of that has to do with the fact that the full community had the opportunity to be engaged.”

Adding Context

Some policies recommend that the committee look for opportunities to keep building names and “contextualize” them, rather than simply remove them outright. That might mean, for example, adding a plaque outside a building that explains why the university chose the name in the first place and how the individual doesn’t necessarily represent the institution’s present-day values.

“In some cases, providing historical context and a reinterpretation of a name can be an opportunity to educate the university community about important aspects of its past,” reads the Maryland system’s renaming policy. “Consideration may be given as to whether the harm can be mitigated, and historical knowledge preserved, by recognizing and addressing the individual’s wrongful behavior in a prominent and permanent way in conjunction with retaining the name.”

The University of Mississippi took a similar step in 2018, when administrators sought to address the legacy of racism on campus by placing six contextualizing plaques near or in campus buildings “whose long histories are inextricably linked to slavery, the Civil War, and the state’s racist past,” according to The Hechinger Report. But some student activists felt the plaques didn’t do enough to reduce the harm of having campus buildings named for racists and white supremacists.

Matthew Dennis, professor emeritus of history and of environmental studies at the University of Oregon and the author of the forthcoming book American Relics and the Politics of Public Memory (University of Massachusetts Press), said that universities may use such measures to try to appease both sides of the debate.

“Personally, I don’t think it’s the ideal outcome, but I understand why it might emerge and I think it’s probably a matter of politics,” he said. “The person who ultimately makes the decision is often a university president or chancellor, who is a political actor, and it’s not the only thing a president does, but she or he is really charged with trying to represent the institution and guide the institution. They have to keep donors happy; they have to keep alumni happy.”

Many renaming policies carefully try to balance the competing demands of the university’s constituents. North Carolina State University, for instance, clarifies that name-removal policies apply only to honorary namings, not those that result from gifts to the institution.

Other institutions, such as Johns Hopkins University and Ohio State University, ask their denaming committees to weigh philanthropic donations as part of the broader evaluation of a potential name change. Hopkins, for example, recommends that the Naming Review Board consider, “Are there constraints that qualify our ability to remove it? For example, a legal gift instrument, or a standing custom regulating the renaming of a scholarship program, professorship, or space?” (This paragraph previously misidentified Ohio State University.)

Still other institutions directly address the potential legal repercussions of removing a name. Institutions—most recently, the University of California Hastings College of the Law—have been sued for attempting to change names they had previously promised to maintain in perpetuity.

Disqualifying Factor

A handful of universities seem to be trying to pre-empt controversies by clearly defining the characteristics that would disqualify a namesake.

The University of Richmond, a small private university in Virginia, has the only policy reviewed by Inside Higher Ed that notes specific behaviors that would bar an individual from having a building named after them. Specifically, it states that “no building, program, professorship, or other entity at the University should be named for a person who directly engaged in the trafficking and/or enslavement of others or openly advocated for the enslavement of people,” a clause that led to the immediate removal of several building names the same day the policy was established.

It also states that participating in or advocating for “segregation, eugenics, or other forms of discrimination based on protected class, as legally defined” are among the instances of “significant wrongdoing or misconduct” that can preclude someone from being honored with a naming from the university.

These are more specific criteria than most universities’ policies, which typically use more subjective terminology to describe what wrongdoings could lead to an individual’s name being stricken.

“We were glad to see that specific language,” said Shira Greer, a senior majoring in American studies at Richmond who helped lead efforts to get the buildings’ names changed. “I think it’s good that they did include specific language that can be pointed towards in the future, as well.”

The University of Minnesota also takes a more proactive approach to denaming than most universities; its policy states that 75 years after a building receives a name, university officials must evaluate whether to keep the name indefinitely or change it.

Student Reaction

For students who have advocated for building names to be changed, new denaming policies are a mixed bag.

Sarah Fishkind, a senior at Towson who launched the push to investigate Paca and Carroll’s slaveholding legacies, said she was grateful that the university showed an interest in keeping up with the morals and values of the campus community.

But she noted that Towson’s policy, which requires that proposed name changes come through the student government, Faculty Senate or staff senate, seems to be more secretive than the approach students took in 2020, which involved blasting the renaming initiative on social media and in the press. She worries the more rigid, internal approach could be bad for accountability.

“If someone wants a removal of a name, they should submit a request … I think that’s them saying they don’t want us to go to the media or the news because they don’t want to be called out like that,” she said.

When asked if having a set procedure for removing names would have made it easier for her and her fellow activists to get the Paca and Carroll names removed in 2020, she said she wasn’t sure whether the university would have acted without the external pressure.

Greer, the Richmond student, said that denaming facilities named for racists is important for making students of color feel safe on campus—but if it’s the only step taken, it’s meaningless.

“I think it is such a minimal thing, and I think schools are finally coming around to it and saying, ‘OK, it’s 2022, we can’t say that they stand for and support diversity, equity and inclusion while still have buildings named after slave owners or segregations or eugenicists or what have you,’” she said. “Changing a few signs—it doesn’t require a whole lot of commitment from the school.”

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