Lessons About Renaming University Buildings

Commemoration for service in the Great War, 1914-1919, University College London (UCL) | ProfJoeCain

Summary: The argument builds on several steps. First, naming is a commemorative act. These acts support heritage stories. Conflicts over renaming really are conflicts between heritage stories. These conflicts cannot be resolved by appealing to historical facts because facts don’t decide which heritage story is preferred. How do we make decisions about renaming? Apply principles of plurality and equity, mostly equity. Do this as part of a three-stage strategy for balancing all commemorative acts across the university and do this with a clear understanding of which heritage stories are most important to the institution today. Also, plan for change. Priorities for our heritage stories evolve over time, and new conflicts are certain to arise. Engagement about those priorities gives the executive a route for bringing the community closely together.

UCL Galton Lecture Theatre - plaque on door - ProfJoeCain

Key Concepts in Renaming Buildings

“As our community discusses whether to rename the Slater Museum, what lessons do you think Puget Sound can/should take away from UCL’s experience?”

It’s easy to ask if we should keep or change a name on a building. It’s equally easy to advocate for one or another instance of a name. Each campaign provokes responses about slippery slopes and end points: if we start here, people ask, when does it stop? This essay aims to build some foundations for policy making on the question of removing or reassigning commemorative names at universities.

The best way forward for an institution considering changes to naming policies is to step back and create room for asking fundamental questions about the heritage it wants to promote across the whole of its estate. With answers to those questions they can build a strategy for emphasis and forward planning. By avoiding ad hoc decision-making, they prevent the creation of new opposition groups for every solution they propose.

Historical analysis shows Karl Pearson was a racist nativist supremacist for Anglo-Saxon stock

History and Heritage

Draw a distinction between history and heritage. Crudely, history is the study of what happened in the past. Good history shows empathy, as distinct from sympathy. Heritage is a use of the past for purposes in the present. (For instance, consider the blue plaque on Gower Street commemorating Charles Darwin.) Heritage is a crucial tool for creating dentity, ownership, value, and normativity, as well as their opposites. Heritage supplies us with social glue and social division. It reinforces our sense of place, and it builds commonalities for nations, regions, communities, kith, and kin.

Heritage manifests through stories: manifest destiny, civil rights movements, internment, discovery and invention, grandparents. These stories are morality tales. No fixed rules govern the manufacture of heritage stories. Most build on facts, in whatever way we construe or construct our facts. Some heritage stories use many facts; others, few. The use of facts in heritage stories always is selective and pick-and-mix. Contradicting facts might be ignored. A story might make use of only a few pieces of any single fact. Heritage stories draw upon other resources, too. Those resources include values, hopes, and aspirations; legends, projections, and folktales; fragments, memories, and fears. Heritage stories do not tell us about the past. They are constructed from bits of the past, mixed with those other elements, and put to work in our present moment. Heritage stories are tools for meaning-giving in our lives today.

We have few shared rules to evaluate heritage stories. The language of truth and falsity certainly encourages the wrong evaluative approach. At best, heritage stories need only be consistent with the facts selected. However, consistency with those facts alone is a criterion that keeps a wide range of possibilities open for us, even when (or, if) disputes about facts are resolved. In addition, internal coherence is a popular criterion for stories of all kinds: does the narrative make sense? are actions consistent with characterisation? does progression lead listeners easily to the designated outcome?

Heritage stories are reinforced by commemorative acts. Commemorations are performed, and performances involve any number of elements, from activities, objects, and localities to institutions, icons, or affiliations. Commemorating is a symbolic process. Acts of commemoration function to activate heritage stories for their intended purpose because a process of linkage develops emotional and community bonds between commemorative act and heritage story.

Naming a building in honour of a person is a commemorative act. The goal of commemoration is to link the name to a prescribed heritage story. That heritage story has social value at the time of its creation. At the unveiling of a commemoration, the relevant heritage story and the linkage of the commemorative act might be expressed. In other words, we might be told what heritage story to accept and how it relates to goals for the present. Often this does not happen explicitly, leaving us searching for clues.

Links between commemorative acts and heritage stories are broken easily. They require effort to maintain emotional and community connection. Memories fade. Loyalties shift. Communities change. Events rearrange priorities. Ideologies comes and go. Linkage is a dynamic process, and links originally asserted can lose purchase in the community. Broken links leave heritage stories unsupported. They also leave commemorative acts without a raison d’être.

New links can be generated, too. Members of communities regularly reach into the past for their own heritage needs. Existing commemorative acts might be appropriated, redefined to serve new purposes in other heritage stories. Co-opting can be easier than erasure or substitution.

Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797) commemorative plaque on UCL Charles Bell Building

Competing Heritage Stories

Any one community carries many heritage stories. These overlap, conflict, and co-exist. Facts contributing to a heritage story of success or foundation can be used to construct an equally compelling heritage story of failure, folly, or exploitation. Whether different heritage stories are understood to be competing, complimentary, or simply co-existing is a decision for those living in the ever-changing present.

Disputes over commemorative acts grow from the desire to express competing heritage stories in a single community. In this case, competition is more than conflict. The expectation leans towards ranking: winners and losers.

Several types of arguments occur when competing heritage stories are compared. First, arguments over recognition take place. These investigate matters of validity and standing. Does a particular account qualify as a heritage story, and a relevant heritage story for the community? Is that account sufficiently relevant to earn consideration? Second, arguments over ranking. These investigate grounds for judging heritage stories as more deserving than others. Some ranking arguments work through familiar rules of power and governance. Others work through structural and subliminal exertions of privilege, such as via the power of rule-making and the power to prescribe normativity.

As a strategy for managing differences within communities, inclusion offers a first step. Inclusion requires addition, compelling a decision on recognition that defaults to “yes”. It demurs ranking in favour of plurality. A multiculturalist strategy encourages inclusion. In the case of interpreting commemorative acts such as names assigned to a building, an inclusive response by management would encourage additional heritage stories to come forward, then create opportunities for links to develop towards those additions, and then ensure space is available for those different links to coexist in the community. In practice, policies of inclusion might be implemented with the posting of signage in the disputed space that develops alternative links to competing heritage stories.

Inclusion is widely understood to have failed as a strategy for achieving fairness. On its own, addition proves to be insufficient for overcoming advantages bestowed upon well established, firmly embedded – dominant – heritage stories. In short, it’s not a level playing field. Some heritage stories occupy privileged positions. Newly recognised heritage stories cannot match the resources or momentum available to long-recognised heritage stories. Structural and subliminal privileges compound those advantages.

Equity has evolved as an alternative strategy for achieving fairness. Equity builds on principles of symmetry in the redistribution of power and the identification of advantage. It seeks constitutional reassessment of position, rule-making, and category-building. It is a critique of structural and implicit bias.

The shift from inclusion to equity changes the nature of conflict in cases where commemorative acts are linked to competing heritage stories. Addition alone is proving inadequate as a strategy for maintaining consensus within communities. The playing field simply is not level. Inclusion preserves power relationships, leaving the impression that heritage stories relate not as equals but as dominant and dissenting, majority and minority, true and appeasing for purposes of political correctness. To achieve productive and stabilizing outcomes, executive decision-making must embrace core concepts in equity.

UCL Darwin Building, entrance on Gower Street | ProfJoeCain

Universities and Their Heritage Stories

Universities are locations rich with competing heritage stories. It’s a mistake to accept only one or a few such stories, or to think heritage is static. We must build strategies for weaving new heritage stories firmly into our estate, and we must accept dominant heritage stories already have plenty of space to express themselves. They are not at risk of extinction.

Arguments about names for facilities and possible renaming are arguments about commemorative acts. Arguments about commemorative acts are proxies for arguments between competing heritage stories linked to those commemorative acts. Competing heritage stories co-exist in a diverse community; it’s crucial for everyone to develop a sense of empathy for all those stories. When arguing about names for facilities, the impulse is towards inclusion – that means making space for competing heritage stories to co-exist – this is “addition” or “pluralism” or “multiculturalism”. This will seem to be an easy, “go to” solution for conflict resolution.

I’m sorry to say, the inclusive approach is going to fail in the long run. This is because – critical studies of disability, gender, race, and other subjects tell us repeatedly – inclusion alone fails to change power relationships, privilege, and other core normative structures. Inclusion alone leads to a weak solution. The alternative to inclusion is equity, which is the approach I favour. 

A solution to commemoration and renaming focused on equity considers commemorative practices around the university as a whole and moves to examine the totality of their underlying heritage stories. Here a sequence of steps to follow to implement this idea. First, develop a descriptive inventory of current commemorative acts and their rationale. (What do you have?) Second, develop a prescription for the heritage stories the executive wants to project, based on engagement with its communities of interest. (What do you want?) Third, compare the descriptive and prescriptive to identify gaps, overabundances, and broken linkages. (What needs to happen?) This comparison will produce a specification to guide change that preserves the principle of equity. It is a systems-wide approach.

In sum, it’s all about which heritage stories you want to tell. Those are going to change. They are changing. They have changed. Universities need to grow with that change in mind.

Commemorative plaque for Sir Donald Currie in Lewis Room, UCL Rockefeller Building, Gower Street, London

Afterthought: the elephant in the room

Commemorative acts increasingly rise from direct financial donation. Indeed, it seems to be a default principle in the recruitment of philanthropy to offer naming as a one element of the transaction. Vetting is a familiar process for those working in development, and reputational capital is a well-established principle for those both pursuing and pursued in these activities. Given the dominance of money, it is odd to focus so intensely upon renaming honorific commemorations while ignoring transactional commemorations as though they were rare events. This is the elephant in the room.

Executives might choose a middle ground in the pursuit of philanthropy. A forward plan for commemorative acts can give potential donors options for name choices associated with their gifts. For illustration, should I offer to leave a substantial legacy to a university for a building, the university might offer to me several options for naming driven by a strategy designed to support certain heritage stories. Perhaps, say, either to increase the number of role models drawn from the history of disabled scholars in the humanities or to increase the number of role models drawn from the history of Latin American female scholars in the sciences. I can say “no” and foreground myself. Or, I can understand those institution ambitions and use philanthropic giving to support those ambitions. My support is for “why” more than “who”.