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Tuesday March 21st

Heel Talk episode 11: Board of Trustees lifts 16-year moratorium on renaming buildings

The 11th episode of Heel Talk went live Monday morning. 

The Board of Trustees members voted on June 17 to lift a 16-year ban on renaming buildings, monuments and landscapes on UNC’s campus. 

To better understand what this moratorium meant, how this decision will affect the University moving forward and how campus leaders are responding, host Evely Forte spoke to summer University desk editor Maydha Devarajan and former DTH reporter Hannah McClellan. 

This episode was co-edited and co-produced by Evely Forte and Meredith Radford. Reporting by Maydha Devarajan and Hannah McClellan. 

For more information on today’s episode, click here.

The transcript of Monday’s episode is available below: 

Hannah McClellan: Maybe the, the louder, more organized, like, high intense pressure for this past week, of the petitions with 10,000 signatures and people emailing was, maybe, enough to sway their opinion.

Evely Forte: I’m Evely Forte and this is Heel Talk.

Hey everyone, welcome back to Heel Talk.

Today, we’re covering a significant announcement that will impact the future legacy of the University. The Board of Trustees members voted on June 17th to lift a 16-year ban on renaming buildings, monuments and landscapes on UNC’s campus.

To better understand what this moratorium meant, how this decision will affect the University moving forward and how campus leaders are responding, I spoke to summer University desk editor Maydha Devarajan and former DTH reporter Hannah McClellan. 

Thanks for joining me, Maydha and Hannah. 

Maydha Devarajan: Thanks for having me.

HM: Yeah, thanks for asking me to be here.

EF: So, before we talk about the recent Board of Trustees’ decision, could either of you first explain what the moratorium is? 

MD: The moratorium was essentially a 16-year ban on renaming campus buildings, monuments, memorials and landscapes on UNC’s campus. 

HM: So, in 2015, the Board of Trustees announced that the moratorium was going to be put in place, along with their decision to rename what is now known as Carolina Hall. So, originally named Saunders Hall, the building was named after William Saunders, who was a KKK member and leader. 

So student and community activists, particularly Black students and Black live movements, had been calling for that particular building to be renamed for years, suggesting it be named Hurston Hall, after Black author Zora Neale Hurston. Well, as we know, the Board of Trustees didn’t rename it Hurston Hall. And then, when they announced it was going to be named Carolina Hall, they also announced the 16-year moratorium. Judy Robbins, a then-senior involved in the Real Silent Sam Coalition told the DTH, in 2015, “Putting a 16-year freeze on it is basically saying, ‘We hope all of you will graduate, and we hope that this movement will die, and we won’t have to deal with it again.’” Of course, Trustee Lowry Caudill said the Board “wanted an extended period of time to allow this to root.” So, there was a little bit different of approaches in how that decision was described by different communities.

EF: And Hannah, you reported on the history of UNC building names back in 2018. Can you talk about the significance of those buildings’ names? 

HM: Yeah, so I think what’s particularly interesting around this issue is the idea of the importance of symbolism and how symbolism really connects to less visible, but tangible inequalities. So, when I reported on the issue of building names, many people that I personally knew, in a lot of my friend groups, had no idea of the history of so many names on campus. But I absolutely wasn’t the first, or even close to the first, to make the discovery of those names. Activists and community members have been calling for the names to be changed for years and decades even. So, even though the story followed Silent Sam’s toppling, it wasn’t the start of that conversation by any means. And, even before the DTH had coverage on Carolina Hall and the moratorium, those sorts of conversations were happening.

And so, similarly as with Silent Sam, I think there’s a group of people who imply that activists are fighting for something silly or inconsequential, while also, simultaneously elevating the history by kind of arguing that it needs to be preserved by keeping those names in place. But, I spoke with UNC professor Altha Cravey, at the time I wrote this 2018 article, and she said, “We have so much work to do about structural and institutional racism on our campus. And the symbolic things like names on buildings connect to the less visible things like hiring more faculty of color or admitting more students of color.”

So, put another way, the fact that more than 30 buildings on UNC’s campus are named after individuals with ties to white supremacy, demonstrates that our University was founded on white supremacy, or at the very least, by folks with white supremacist ideals. So, when I wrote this article in 2018, I spoke to UNC professor William Sturkey, and he put it this way: “What we’re dealing with is basically a campus that was created and curated to help celebrate and promote white supremacy in ways that are fundamentally at odds with a desegregated campus.”

EF: And how have UNC community members expressed their disapproval of the moratorium, which essentially made it impossible to change these building names?

MD: Like Hannah said, a huge part of this change can be attributed to student activism. That really can’t be understated, especially the work of students of color and Black students in particular. In just this past week actually, on Monday, a 2017 UNC alumnus Michael Rashaad Galloway started a petition earlier this week before the BOT actually made the decision. And he called for the moratorium to be lifted. Currently that petition has more than 10,000 signatures.

The petition also demands that the Board add a plaque to the Kenan Memorial Stadium that properly contextualizes that the “Kenan family fortune was amassed through plantation-based slavery.” And, it also asks that the trustees rename the more than 40 structures and landscapes on campus that are, in some way, named for individuals who have direct ties to slavery or white supremacy. 

But again, like, this is definitely not a new fight that students have been trying to change. A petition was also created, in February of this year actually, by faculty, staff, students, postdocs, to end the moratorium that garnered over 450 signatures.

But, as Hannah said, this is definitely not a new topic of discussion. There have been protests throughout the decades, in the '90s and earlier than that as well, to get buildings on campus renamed, that are currently named for white supremacists. 

EF: And so, what have been some of the countering viewpoints about changing the buildings’ names, specifically those who believed the names should not be changed? 

HM: So, I would say I have at least seen more of a stronger response, in terms of countering viewpoints, in relation to Silent Sam, and the group, kind of, thinking that Silent Sam should remain on UNC’s campus. But I think, in the same vein, some of the same arguments have kind of been used in support of keeping the building names as they are. And, those, kind of, go back to the arguments of preserving history or not erasing history. And, I think, when I spoke to some leaders of Republican student groups at UNC in 2018, for the article I wrote, some of their opinion was that it should be a decision that involves voters who pay tax dollars to help support and fund UNC’s campus. And, they kind of even used the argument of not falling into what they said, quote unquote, was “mob rule,” in how Silent Sam was toppled. So, I think there’s just generally this sense of wanting to have the names the same, in kind of the tradition of just preserving history. But, I do think that opposition has really been a lot more silent, in at least in what I’ve seen statement wise, has been a lot more vague and just, kind of, not responding to requests by activists for these names to be changed — until, of course, this last week when we saw that decision was reversed. 

And, just by talking with some different people, some of which off the record for some of my reporting, I think there’s a sense from a lot of faculty that this decision was made kind of with, on the University’s part, with a financial incentive in mind. That there’s a lot of people that fund UNC who would see it as a political statement that they disagree with to change names on campus. And so, I think there’s a sentiment among a lot of faculty that one of the reasons that UNC's been slow to move on changing these names is, kind of, to avoid creating any conflict lines or losing any financial support. But, I think that we saw, this week at least, that maybe the louder, more organized high intense pressure for this past week of the petitions, with 10,000 signatures and people emailing, was maybe enough to sway their opinion. 

EF: And, so what was the most recent BOT decision concerning the moratorium exactly? 

MD: So, in 2015, the BOT passed three different resolutions, as we talked about. One of them was about the education and curation of UNC’s racist history on campus, which included things like asking then-Chancellor Carol Folt to form a history task force, which would examine ways to, sort of, incorporate that knowledge into curriculum, things like that. And then, also creating historical markers for McCorkle Place and Carolina Hall. The second resolution was to rename Saunders Hall as Carolina Hall, and the third was implementing the 16-year freeze that would have ended in 2031 on renaming campus buildings. And so on Wednesday, the BOT repealed the third resolution, which was the ban. 

HM: And something I would add, just about that original decision, is that when it was presented by the Board of Trustees, it was presented very positively as kind of a victory of unity on campus. They didn’t acknowledge at all the widespread requests to rename Saunders Hall, Hurston Hall. And, in the original 2015 DTH article, that I mentioned earlier, one of the then-trustees, when asked by the DTH, said that the discussion to rename it Hurston Hall didn’t come up at all, in their discussions. And so, I think that’s interesting in their original decision that they were just, kind of, so out of touch with what students and activists had been asking for. 

EF: And Maydha, you attended the BOT meeting where this decision was passed. Was this a unanimous decision? 

MD: No, so the BOT voted 11-2, to pass the motion. Trustees Preyer and McCullen actually voted against the motion. They both expressed concerns about conducting the vote over Zoom; they said that they’d rather wait to do it in person. 

In the context of these discussions, and choosing to make the decision over Zoom, McCullen had made a fairly controversial statement that people on social media were quite upset with afterwards.

Allie Ray McCullen: If we jump off and change things every time we hear a rumor that the students may demonstrate, we’re going to let the prisoners run the prison.

MD: He did later apologize for his comments, after the Board came out of their recess.

ARM: I don’t view UNC-Chapel Hill as a prison, and certainly the students are not prisoners. And, I apologize and hope you’ll forgive me.

MD: But, again like I said, people on social media, that I saw, were still quite upset with it and didn’t really feel like his response was genuine. 

He’s made comments similar to that about student protesters in years past. For example, he stated that Silent Sam protesters were, quote, “criminals and entitled wimps.”

EF: And Maydha, from your reporting of this meeting, did any members of the board or attendees contextualize the passing of this decision in relation to the national movement concerning a call for greater racial justice across the country? 

MD: Yeah, a lot of members did comment on this. Trustee David Boliek, who actually put into place the motion to repeal the moratorium, said that lifting the freeze required immediacy. The student-created petition that I referenced earlier states that two-thirds of the current trustees were not involved in the decision to put into place the freeze on renaming campus landmarks. 

Charles Duckett, who was on the board when the 2015 moratorium was put into place, said that addressing concerns of student activists and again like this large social context of what’s going on was really important to ensuring that UNC remains inclusive.

Charles Duckett: We need to stop celebrating people that blocked the progress of this state, and celebrate some people that helped this University advance this state.

MD: Student Body President Reeves Moseley also emphasized this. And, he referenced the petition that Galloway started.  

Reeves Moseley: And, my fear is that if we don’t act on this now, then we’ll be seen as complicit in the perpetuation of allowing, you know, the moratorium to exist. So, I think we don’t have time to not act on it now.

MD: Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz also sent out a campuswide email to the Carolina community later that day. In the email, he said that the history of our University often “mirrors that of our nation.” And, as our country is trying to come to terms with the lived realities of white supremacy and racism, that our campus is also struggling with similar conversations. And, he said that the actions of the trustee members, on Wednesday, sent “a clear message to the Carolina community.”

EF: And so, what happens now? 

MD: So, during a media availability right after the meeting, chairperson Richard Stevens said that immediate next steps for the board would be to consider a set of guidelines that they’d hopefully adopt by the next meeting in July, to rename campus structures. He said that they currently have in place a very complex set of guidelines for naming buildings, but there’s not really anything in place in terms of renaming.

Stevens also said that the board has not identified specific buildings that are to be renamed or ideas for new names.

HM: And something that I would just add about what comes now, at least in terms of how the UNC community and larger Chapel Hill community responds, is I think I’ve also seen on social media, even with people celebrating the decision, just a sense of, a need for further accountability for the trustees. Knowing, like I mentioned earlier with the 2015 decision, that very clearly articulated requests from activists for Saunders Hall to be renamed Hurston, were not only not accepted, but also weren’t even brought up in the formal discussion, I think says a lot about how the trustees have, at least in the past, really approached these conversations. And so, I think looking forward, there’s going to be really a need for attention from students and community members to be sure that the trustees follow through on actually changing names, and that they are really taking, much more seriously than they did in 2015, the recommendations of particularly Black students and students of color, but just the larger Carolina community as well. 

MD: Yeah, and both Stevens and Guskiewicz said that repealing the moratorium was only a first step to other changes that are needed to address UNC’s racist history on campus. So, like Hannah said, I think it’ll be a matter of the concerns of students and faculty, staff, just making sure that those are addressed by the Board of Trustees and other administrators on UNC’s campus. 

EF: So, thank you both so much for taking the time to talk to me today and for sharing the insights that you have on your reporting.  

HM: Yeah, thanks for having me.

MD: Yeah, thank you.

EF: This week’s episode of Heel Talk was co-edited and co-produced by Meredith Radford and myself. That’s it for this week’s episode of Heel Talk. I’m Evely Forte. I’ll see you next week. 

So, if you enjoyed today’s episode, please consider subscribing, rating and reviewing the episode, and sharing it with someone that you think would enjoy it too. I’ll see you next time.

Episode transcribed by Meredith Radford.

DTH stories mentioned in this episode: 

If you enjoyed this episode, please consider leaving an honest rating and review. 





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