In September of 2016, I received an email from Mia Settles-Tidwell, the assistant vice chancellor of the Division of Equity & Inclusion. As a strategy to foster a more inclusive campus climate, the vice chancellor of that division had requested a student representative to serve on a committee for renaming controversial buildings: the Building Naming Project Task Force.
The task force formed in response to years of protest over the controversial naming of Barrows Hall. Its namesake — David Prescott Barrows, former president of the University of California — was characterized by the UC Berkeley Black Student Union as “an imperialist by way of anthropology … (who) participated in perpetuating American colonialism, the creation of damaging stereotypes, and the subsequent destruction of cultures in the Philippines, and several regions of Africa.” Other historical figures with their names on our campus buildings have similarly contentious reputations. John LeConte was a paternalistic, anti-women’s suffrage slave-owner. Henry Leavitt Ellsworth was appointed commissioner of Indian tribes in Arkansas and Oklahoma to allegedly establish order and justice after the passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830, overseeing the Trail of Tears — which devastated indigenous communities. Our research resulted in pages of names of figures who ran counter to the values of our campus.
Despite finding many serious candidates for renaming, we concluded that we could not make specific recommendations based on personal assessments alone. Instead, we reviewed existing campus and university naming policies and concluded our work by providing suggestions on policy revision to former chancellor Nicholas Dirks and UC President Janet Napolitano.
The conclusion to our work in the task force was admittedly anticlimactic. I could sense helplessness throughout the room as we sent recommendations to Dirks, knowing they would inevitably fail to make it to Napolitano’s desk, where they needed to be.
Why? Not because of “alumni attachment” to the buildings, as many would allege. Personally, I don’t know any alumni who have expressed fond sentiments toward Barrows. After all, Barrows was only president for three years (1919-1923), and the building was erected in the late-1960s posthumously, hardly a historical time for him but certainly significant in the height of the Civil Rights Era.
A more likely reason for the administration’s attachment to these archaic names is the steep price tags attached to these names. A prominent voice in the discussion, an ex-officio executive director of donor and gift services for university development & alumni relations informed us of the pushback received from the families of these figures. I was given exclusive front-row seating to the way administrators buckle at the thought of losing “generous” donors.
Some alumni might argue that these names aren’t “exceptionally problematic,” as the figures they refer to were simply “men of their time,” as if to suggest that everyone from the 1960s and back were moneyed, white men — and racist, at that! This assertion whitewashes history and continues the erasure of Black and brown voices that were in opposition to the colonialist, imperialist, and, frankly, white supremacist events of their time, events that many of these figures participated in. They may have been “men of their time,” but they were racist men of their time. Just like it took people of their own time to stand up to these injustices, it will take exceptional resistance to stand up to our university in its complacency with its memorialization of controversial figures.
By confronting the history of these figures, we are reshaping the dynamic between the institution’s values and UC Berkeley students. Though these figures may have contributed to this university, their damaging ideals overshadow their achievements for many of our students. If we are to boast of ourselves as an institution that supports free speech, we must recognize the othered voices whose histories have been affected by our past faculty and administrators, rather than uncritically celebrating all of our past figures simply for their presence and presents.
Vice Provost for Academic and Space Planning Tsu-Jae King Liu has suggested alternatives to renaming these buildings, such as an “exhibit or mural in the lobby, whose creation students would be invited to participate in.” But it isn’t enough to involve students in this process if the end goal isn’t the university fully acknowledging the history of our buildings’ namesakes. The university must provide our community with a complete history of these figures and give students the tools to make a change. If nothing can be done to rename these buildings, they must provide some visible intervention that assures students, alumni and the broader community that the university both acknowledges its history and does not allow donors to overwrite campus values with their wallets.
How can we speak of our commitment to larger goals, of divesting from prisons, of hiring more Black and brown faculty members, if we cannot even change building names that represent a history of oppression?
At the end of the day, we’re all people of our time. In 2017, that means confronting institutions of government that ignore the country’s history of white supremacy to build false narratives with cheap statues and honorific building names.
Fred Nichols is a member of the Building Naming Project Task Force.