UC Berkeley must remove Boalt name

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Chi Park/Staff

After a process that lasted more than a year and that received thousands of comments from our alumni, I have decided that the law school should stop using the Boalt name. For a century, the law school has been unofficially referred to as “Boalt” and its alumni often affectionately refer to themselves as “Boalties.” But in May 2017, it came to light that John Boalt had said vile, racist things.

Boalt wrote a racist essay supporting the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned immigration of Chinese laborers to the U.S. for more than 60 years. In “The Chinese Question,” Boalt said that Chinese people might be smarter than some native tribes and preferable to the “African Negro,” but that “the Chinaman has brought to us and planted within our border all the vicious practices and evil tendencies of his home.” He wrote that the “Caucasian and Mongolian” races were “separated by a remarkable divergence in intellectual character and disposition.” Boalt believed that Chinese people could not assimilate and the races should not associate with one another.

I decided that I wanted to have an open and thorough process for considering how to proceed. Soon after becoming dean, I appointed a five-person committee — composed of a faculty member, a senior administrator, a staff member, an alumnus and a student — to carefully study the issue and make recommendations. The committee solicited comments and received more than 2,000 responses, did extensive research and held a public hearing. After receiving the committee’s report, I circulated it to the community and asked for comments.

I received more than 600 messages. The responses were fairly evenly divided, with about 60 percent favoring the elimination of our use of the Boalt name on the building and in our activities, and about 40 percent wanting to keep the name.

There was some correlation between the opinion and when the writer graduated, but less than I expected. There were many who graduated in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s who favored changing the name, and many who graduated recently or are currently attending the law school who wanted to keep the name. Those who self-identified as individuals of color overwhelmingly, but not unanimously, favored changing the name. I was surprised that there was more of a political reaction to this than I expected: Those who indicated that they were politically conservative overwhelmingly favored keeping the name.

In making my decision, several considerations were most important. First, the law school never has been officially named anything other than University of California, Berkeley School of Law. It never was officially named “Boalt.” A decade ago, Dean Chris Edley decided that we should refer to it as “Berkeley Law.” He made this choice because “Berkeley” has great recognition and esteem around the country and the world; “Boalt” is not nearly as widely known.

Second, no gift had terms requiring that the 1950 wing of the current building be named “Boalt Hall” nor that any organizations or activities in the law school be named Boalt. The terms of Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt’s will specified that two professorships would be named for John and Elizabeth Boalt. Any change in these would require a request to the Attorney General of California to go to court. The committee made no recommendation for doing this.

Many who wrote me opposing the name change observed that many other notable individuals — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Albert Einstein, Earl Warren — owned slaves or said racist things or supported racist policies. But I think in those instances there are good reasons to honor these individuals notwithstanding their racist statements and actions. I cannot think of a comparable reason for why we should continue to honor John Boalt.

Ultimately, the question is whether, based on all we know of a person, we should continue to honor the person by using his or her name. I was especially moved by the views of many of our students and alumni of color who expressed discomfort in being part of a school where important aspects of its operation are named for someone who expressed such racism.

Thus, I accepted the recommendations of the committee and came to the following conclusions. We will recommend to the campus Building Name Review Committee that it de-name the wing of the building known as “Boalt Hall.” Removing the name of a building is ultimately a decision by the chancellor and not one the law school can make on its own.

There are many things within the law school that use the name Boalt. We will cease using the Boalt name for these. We encourage organizations within the law school to discontinue the use of the name “Boalt” in their organization names and activities. Many already have done this.

We will take additional steps to ensure that Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt and her generosity continue to be recognized. We also will take steps to ensure that the racism underlying the Chinese Exclusion Act be remembered.

I know there are strong feelings on all sides of this issue. But ultimately, it is about a symbol — the use of a name. Although symbols matter, often greatly, it has been a terrific law school for more than a century and will remain one regardless of whether we use the Boalt name.

Erwin Chemerinsky is the dean and Jesse H. Choper is a distinguished professor of law at the UC Berkeley School of Law.