‘Making this campus more inclusive’: UC Berkeley communities react to Boalt Hall name removal

Sunny Shen/Staff

Related Posts

On Thursday, UC Berkeley School of Law student Alex Mabanta awoke to the actuality of something he had been working on for his entire graduate career: the de-naming of Boalt Hall.

Mabanta, a second-year graduate student studying jurisprudence and social policy, served on the Building Name Review Committee, a group commissioned by Chancellor Carol Christ in 2017 to review building names. The committee spent almost three years circulating surveys and inviting public comment.

Although Boalt’s name was officially struck down Thursday morning, Mabanta said the initial report highlighting Boalt’s racist views spurred a change within Berkeley Law much earlier.

“Within fall of 2018, I saw a sea change in how the Berkeley Law school community rallied together in taking the lessons from the report,” Mabanta said.

In the spring of 2017, members of the public began urging Berkeley Law to dissociate from John Boalt — the namesake of the law school’s main building — after Charles Reichmann, a lecturer at Berkeley Law, published an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle. Reichmann said he came across Boalt’s name in a speech while doing research about the 19th century Chinese experience in the Bancroft Library.

Although initially hesitant to share his findings, Reichmann said he found it “difficult to keep quiet,” given that the law school is home to many students of Chinese descent. Reichmann also said he supported the campus’s decision to create an exhibit on Boalt’s legacy, considering Boalt had been the namesake for “more than 100 years.”

“The intention was never to erase history — quite the opposite,” Reichmann said. “It was to broadcast a history that had been too long forgotten.”

Tar Rakhra, a third-year Berkeley Law student, said he first heard of Boalt’s tainted legacy when he initially arrived on campus. He created a video featuring Berkeley Law students reading portions of Boalt’s now-infamous speech out loud and voicing their reactions, which was then played at a town hall to display the student perspective.

As co-chair of the Asian Pacific American Law Student Association, Rakhra also helped write a letter addressed to Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky urging that the law school dissociate from Boalt. Many campus student organizations signed the letter, as did several law student associations from universities across the country.

Rakhra said the de-naming “indicates that a law school is defined by its future and current students.”

“It should always be evolving as times, cultures and values do,” Rakhra said. “That’s really what the law does too — as society’s values change, why not law school?”

Integral to de-naming Boalt Hall was alumni involvement. Dale Minami, a distinguished Berkeley Law alumnus known for his role in overturning Korematsu v. United States, was instrumental in organizing Asian American alumni of Berkeley Law, according to Mabanta.

Minami compared the efforts surrounding Boalt Hall’s de-naming to the activism at UC Berkeley during the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, which he experienced firsthand as a law student.

“One thing exciting to me is activism of the younger generation,” Minami said. “To see this new generation step up and express outrage and act on it — truly inspiring.”

Minami also stated that remembering Boalt’s role in history was equally as important as removing his name from the building, considering the impact that Boalt’s actions had on communities of color. The school is currently looking at dedicating a professionally designed, museum-style display to Boalt’s history on the first floor of the main law building, according to Charles Cannon, assistant dean at Berkeley Law, who served as chair of the Berkeley Law Committee on the Use of the Boalt Name.

Second-year law student Ari Chivukula, also a member of the chancellor’s committee, said they appreciated that the campus now has a procedure in place to acknowledge wrongdoings of building namesakes and make amends while educating visitors.

“The naming of a building is a reward, in the same way that the placement of a statue can be a reward for a person’s life and work,” Chivukula said. “You need to make sure that while you are acknowledging the past, you do it in a way that doesn’t appear as a celebration of the problematic.”

Recommending that a building name be changed requires unanimous support from the departments inhabiting a building, according to Chivukula. De-naming Boalt Hall was unique in that the only department housed within the building was the law school. Cannon noted that other campus buildings that have drawn concerns — such as Barrows and Le Conte halls — are home to several different departments.

ASUC Senator Melvin Tangonan said a concerted advocacy effort by several groups is paramount in renaming a building.

“It’s going to have to take community effort — not just one community, but all the communities that will be affected,” Tangonan said.

People of color account for 49% of the 2022 J.D. class, according to Berkeley Law’s website. 11% are the first in their family to receive a college degree.

Victoria Vera, chair of the ASUC Diversity Affairs Commission and member of the chancellor’s committee, said in an email that she hopes the decision “instills a sense of pride to the campus community.”

“As a current first-generation student of color, I know how it feels to be isolated on this large campus,” Vera said in the email. “I hope that this denaming is a step towards making this campus more inclusive but also opens the campus up to the conversation about our history.”

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