‘Reckoning with that history’: UC Berkeley revisits concerns over controversial building names

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Hannah Cooper/Senior Staff

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Update 08/31/17: This story has been updated to include the full Building Naming Project Task Force report. 

At a time when the removal of controversial monuments from public places has made national headlines, UC Berkeley finds itself revisiting concerns surrounding the names of several contentious buildings on campus.

Buildings in question include Barrows, LeConte and Boalt halls. In the spring of 2015, the Black Student Union, or BSU, spoke out against the names of LeConte and Barrows halls. In response, former chancellor Nicholas Dirks convened a special task force to review building names on campus.

The Building Naming Project Task Force, composed of students and faculty, met for the first time in fall 2016. Led by former vice chancellor of equity and inclusion Na’ilah Nasir, the task force published a report in April 2017, recommending that the campus “promptly begin the process of revising the UC Berkeley Principles for Naming.”

“We are strongly of the view that campus names carry important messages, and should reflect campus values,” the report stated. “We therefore recommend that the campus pursue a broader process to understand how the names of facilities, programs and spaces can further or be in tension with institutional values.”

The report mostly focused on Barrows Hall, as it was considered the “driving force behind the creation of the task force,” and briefly mentioned LeConte Hall. Barrows Hall was named after David Barrows, former UC Berkeley president — in a press release, BSU stated that he was “imperialist by way of anthropology and participated in perpetuating American colonialism.” LeConte Hall was named after Joseph LeConte, who owned slaves.

Vice Provost Tsu-Jae King Liu stated in an email Monday that the campus is not currently considering changing the name of Barrows Hall.

“We are considering other ways to make clear that the University’s values have changed dramatically since the building was named,” Liu said in an email, “perhaps through an exhibit or mural in the lobby, whose creation students would be invited to participate in.”

Liu added that the recent change in UC Berkeley’s leadership made it premature to move forward with changing the name of Barrows Hall, but she added that it is a high priority of Chancellor Carol Christ to “rebuild our campus community.”

Other universities across the United States have taken steps to distance themselves from controversial historical figures. In March 2016, the Harvard Corporation approved changing Harvard Law School’s seal, which represented the Royall family, who were prominent slaveholders, according to the Harvard Crimson. About a year later, Yale removed John C. Calhoun’s name from a residential building.

Charles Reichmann, a lecturer at UC Berkeley School of Law, wrote an op-ed in May for the San Francisco Chronicle, arguing that Boalt Hall ought to be renamed as well. Boalt Hall was named after John Boalt, an attorney known for anti-Chinese rhetoric, according to Reichmann.

As stated in the task force’s report, building names are bestowed for one of two reasons: either an honorific naming, to which there is no gift attached, or a philanthropic naming, which involves a donation of some kind to the university. Barrows Hall is considered an honorific naming. On the other hand, Boalt Hall falls under the latter category, as Boalt’s widow donated funds to Berkeley Law.

Cheyenne Overall, law student and member of the task force, said the task force faced alumni opposition to renaming buildings because of sentimental reasons.

“From an alumni perspective, alumni are kind of attached to Barrows Hall, and (people at) Boalt (were) pretty scathed by the rebranding to Berkeley Law,” Overall said. “Attachment to building names is a thing. We have to find a way to bring (alumni) into the conversation and say we’re trying to be inclusive.”

In response to the controversy, Dean of Berkeley Law Erwin Chemerinsky said in an email that Boalt Hall is not the official name of the law school. He added in his statement that Boalt and his ideologies have little association with the school itself.

“It’s important to note that John Boalt himself had no relationship with the law school,” Chemerinsky said in his statement. “Nonetheless, the name is used widely colloquially within and outside the school, and the concerns raised are meaningful.”

To address these concerns, the law school is forming a diverse committee of school stakeholders to review the use of “Boalt” as a name for the school, according to Chemerinsky.

Current UC policy states that in the event that an honorific building should be “un-named,” the chancellor must submit a request to the UC Office of the President. In the case of a philanthropic building, the university’s general counsel must consult the California Attorney General to take further action.

The task force suggested that in the future, for new buildings, the university should ensure that the namesake be “in alignment with the values and mission of the university,” regardless of the size of the gift donated.

ASUC President Zaynab AbdulQadir-Morris, who was involved with BSU’s advocacy in 2015, said changing building names would have positive effects on the campus at large.

“I think it’s nonsensical for the university to preach about respecting people’s differences while having buildings named after people who were trying to target (those) who were different from them,” AbdulQadir-Morris said. “All across the U.S., mostly private universities with historic links to slavery are reckoning with that history. If they can do that … then we can do that as well.”


Contact Revati Thatte at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @revati_thatte.

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  • Peter Kleinman

    Next up on the symbolism front: changing the names of streets, parks, bridges, cities, and all geo-political entities named after slave-holders. Upon the completion of that task attention will have to be paid to the likes of endowments, funds, and honorariums named after union-busters like Rockefeller and Carnegie. Death of one kind or other always creates jobs. So get on with it!

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    Symbolism over substance, the calling card of a morally and intellectually bankrupt American left.

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    By all means, let’s focus on rearranging the deck chairs.

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