How to respond to student calls to rename a campus building or landmark
There is nothing sacrosanct about the name of a building. Nor is there any right to a particular name. The evolution of words, images, and even certain intellectual assumptions is part of how societies change and not in and of itself cause for alarm. Still, when considering what’s in a name, there are steps that universities can take that respect the principles of both free speech and inclusion.
Gather as much information as possible about the building as well as the reasons that community members want to change its name.
ADOPT A PROCESS
It is important to have an agreed-upon, inclusive, consultative process for evaluating possible name changes. Some universities have appointed multi-stakeholder committees to establish these processes and have then appointed additional committees to review specific calls for changes as they arise.
Publicly acknowledge calls for name changes and be as transparent as possible in the university’s response.
Establish and communicate clear time lines for responding.
In public statements, communicate clearly whether and how the building’s name contravenes the university’s contemporary values.
Create opportunities for the group calling for change to meet in person with university administrators. As much as possible, integrate their perspectives into the decision-making process.
In addition to the group leading the charge, reach out to and discuss the matter with additional university stakeholders, including other students, student organizations, faculty, and alumni.
Draw on previous cases, either from your own university or others, when evaluating various courses of action. Whatever your decision, be prepared to defend it.
Changing a name need not be interpreted as an erasure of history. Whatever the university’s final decision, campus leaders can lessen this fear by creating multiple opportunities to learn about and spur reflection on the building’s past.
These kinds of conversations can stir up heavy emotions, so be sure that students and faculty have access to channels of support.