Last Thursday, the Chancellor’s Committee to Review History Commission Resolution discussed and revised a report drafted by its chairperson, Mike Smith, to evaluate the criteria for renaming several buildings on campus.
The renaming process has been ongoing since June 2020, after the UNC Board of Trustees lifted a 16-year moratorium on renaming buildings, monuments, memorials and landscapes. The 10 buildings under review were named for white supremacists and supporters of the Confederacy during the Civil War.
So far, four buildings — Avery Residence Hall, the Student Affairs Building, Aycock Residence Hall and Bingham Hall — have been approved for renaming.
- Smith began by outlining the objective of the meeting — to discuss the committee’s interpretation of the BOT building renaming policies.
- Smith said the approach to renaming buildings should be legalistic and that the policy reflects the difficulty in evaluating historical behavior.
- “I don't want trustees or the chancellor to look at what we say and feel in any way at all that if you don't agree with what we are recommending, you are immoral, you are a racist,” he said.
- "I don't think (the policy is) perfect, but I think it really does sort of try to manage all the complexity that we're dealing with in this kind of thing," Smith said.
- Committee members made several suggestions to revise Smith's draft of the committee report.
- Maria Estorino, director of Wilson Library and associate university librarian for special collections, suggested that references to the “personal views” of the committee members be removed, as that phrase could sound defensive.
- Former Trustee Bill Keyes said it would also be helpful to emphasize the ways in which Board policy helped to shape the committee's discussion.
- “We're a group of folks with a variety of backgrounds and opinions, but yet we're able to work through this and come to recommendations that we agree on,” Keyes said.
- Seven factors are used to evaluate whether a building will be renamed, according to the committee’s report.
- Some factors that make the case for removing a building name stronger include “serious violations” of the law committed by the individual after whom the building was named, as well as “repugnant conduct” that was “central to a namesake’s career, public persona, or life as a whole.”
- Other factors that would make the case for removing a building name weaker include the individual holding views that were “conventional” at the time while still being “especially noteworthy” in other aspects, as well as a “significant level of evolution or moderation of the namesake’s behavior and/or views.”
- Barbara Rimer, dean of the Gillings School of Global Public Health, asked whether the committee would explicitly state in the report that it didn't count supporting the Confederacy as sufficient to recommend name removal. Smith said he imagined those issues would resurface in a handful of "close cases" that haven't faced a tentative vote yet.
- "I think some of these folks who are in a public leadership role, we decided that their behavior was so repugnant that we never had to get to the issue of is enslaving people 'enough,' is serving in the Confederacy alone 'enough,'" Smith said. "... The question are those things by themselves, without more, enough, and I think we just haven't had to resolve that yet."
- The BOT policy also states that the name of a building should be changed if its namesake’s legacy “demonstrably jeopardizes the university's integrity and materially impedes its mission of teaching, research, and public engagement; or significantly contributes to an environment that excludes some members of the University community from opportunities to learn, thrive, and succeed.”
- Committee members discussed the challenges inherent in assessing which historical figures were subject to removal based on this rule. Smith said an example of this includes the renaming discussions for Ruffin Jr. Residence Hall.
- “We may not be able to say that (Thomas) Ruffin Jr., based on the historical behavior, satisfies those (factors) for removal,” Smith said. “And then the question is, yeah, OK, he doesn't, or it's a close case, but does it really affect the integrity of the University? And, moreover, does it mean for some faculty, students and staff that they don't really feel like they have the opportunity to thrive at the University?”
- Some committee members also addressed the notion that renaming a building would dishonor the person for whom the building was named or would erase the history of UNC.
- “If we make a recommendation of a name change or taking a name down, it doesn't mean that we are saying that that person doesn't deserve to be honored, period,” Cheryl Giscombé, associate dean of the Ph.D. Division and Program for the School of Nursing, said. “It's saying that this might not be the appropriate name for this building.”
- Estorino said storing information about important historical figures in an archive was highly dissimilar to naming a building for a person.
- “One of the things that is different between that kind of preservation and access to their lives, their memory, their place at UNC, their place in the state, their place in the nation, and having a name on a building is that those buildings are public, shared spaces," Estorino said. "If you live at UNC, if you work at UNC, if you're a neighbor to UNC, you are confronted with these names just by being on campus.”
- Elliana Alexander, president of the UNC Residence Hall Association, presented the results of a housing survey that asked on-campus residents about familiarity with the process of removing building names and renaming buildings.
- “The vast majority of students support renaming, although the extent to which their well-being has been impacted is correlated with identifying factors,” she said. “However, across the board, white, Black, Latinx, Asian American, Native American and Pacific Islander students all express extreme challenges to their well-being through living and being around residence halls with these names.”
- The anonymous survey closes on Feb. 28.
- Smith said he would take the feedback generated in the meeting to revise some of the committee's report.
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