What’s in a name? Turns out, a whole heck of a lot.
Universities around the globe are wrestling with their pasts as questions are being asked about the legacies of the names that have adorned buildings on campuses for, in some cases, generations.
Yale, Georgetown and Harvard, among others, are facing pressure to change the names of buildings currently bearing the monikers of men deeply entrenched in the 18th and 19th century slave trade. The famed names of the Confederacy still haunt Southern universities as students demand the removal of ubiquitous names like Lee and Jackson. Even Oxford University is feeling pressure about removing references to Cecil Rhodes, of Rhodes scholarship fame, due to his perceived legacy as a father of apartheid.
Tying an institution’s current – and future – reputation to people and deeds of the past is fraught with pitfalls. We all know society changes. What once was acceptable can become unpalatable. That’s easy to understand when you talk about, say, the hundreds of sports teams, from high schools to professionals, which have needed to transition nicknames over the past 50 years from the racial mockery of the past.
But universities base so much of their reputation on cultivating a mystique about their histories. Because of that, it becomes difficult to untangle from said past when it becomes prudent. Hence, why universities seek to protect themselves through policies. Western’s Naming Policy, in fact, offers a well-reasoned approach:
Namings should enhance the profile and image of the University. No naming will be approved or (once approved) continued that will call into serious question the public respect of the University.
Of course, many institutions are discovering that writing the policy was the easy part; applying it becomes difficult.
It is easy to understand one side of the debate. They want an inclusive campus environment that refuses to embrace the sins of an institution’s past. It is not a matter of erasing history, but of choosing to honour appropriate aspects of history. That is not too much to ask. Memorials are not gospel; they are selective and, therefore, easily changed.
But what of the other side, so easily labeled pigheaded, traditionalist or, yes, even racist.
The problem is, once these buildings disconnect from the people for whom they were named, and enter into the shared memories of the students who spent time within them, they become almost sacred spaces worthy of defending in some minds. It doesn’t matter if the building was named after a Confederate general or a compass direction. The debate quickly moves from an assault on the building’s name to an assault on an individual’s time and memories at university.
They don’t care about the name above the entrance; they just know they met their spouse for the first time below it.
These folks who wish to hang onto the past are not holding on to the legacy of the name (OK, some of them are), but they are holding onto their own memories. And that can be understood, even if they are probably on the wrong side of history.
We are to ‘blame’ for this debate, in part. We preach connection to these spaces and cultivate warm, fuzzy feelings about your time on campus. We think that translates into an engaged university community base. And it does. But that comes with baggage.
Nostalgia rarely makes for a logical debate partner.