Harvard Forms Committee on Renaming Principles

Toward guidelines for how to proceed in an era of reconsidering past associations

President Lawrence S. Bacow today announced formation of a Committee to Articulate Principles on Renaming that will, according to a news announcement, “help guide consideration of questions about renaming campus buildings, spaces, programs, professorships, and other objects in view of their association with historical figures whose advocacy or support of activities would today be found abhorrent by members of the Harvard community.”

The committee, with 16 members, is chaired by his predecessor as president, Drew Gilpin Faust, an acclaimed historian of the Civil War, and includes faculty and staff members, students, and alumni.

“I think Harvard is always better when we’re willing to be self-critical, or at least ask in a serious way, ‘How can we become a more enlightened institution?’ To do that, we need to engage people who have both the willingness to ask difficult questions and the courage to answer them in ways that may ultimately challenge us,” Bacow said in the announcement. 

The question of renaming or otherwise coming to terms with matters of identity is not merely theoretical. The Lowell House faculty deans earlier this year initiated an internal conversation on whether its name ought to be reconsidered, in light of President Abbott Lawrence Lowell’s (1909-1933) reputation for “racism, anti-Semitism, purges of gay students, sexism, and xenophobia.” And the Law School abandoned its shield, which was associated with the slaveholding family whose fortune endowed Harvard’s first law professorship. (The school subsequently unveiled a monument dedicated to people enslaved by the benefactor, Isaac Royall Jr.) Turning to contemporary associations related to donors, objections have also been raised over the naming of the Sackler Museum, given Sackler family members’ company, Purdue Pharma (which just pled guilty to federal charges stemming from its role in the opioids crisis); and of the Kennedy School’s Taubman building and center (in light of the conviction of A. Alfred Taubman for price-fixing when he was chair of the Sotheby’s auction house).

As such issues have arisen, Bacow said, creating principles would help bring consistency across the University. In his charge to the committee, Bacow wrote: 

Over decades and centuries, Harvard has attached many different names to many different things—buildings and other spaces, professorships, centers, academic programs, and more. Increasingly, members of our community are raising questions about the propriety of past decisions to recognize certain historical figures by having named things for them or by honoring them with artifacts such as statues or portraits. More specifically, questions are being raised about whether these individuals’ names or representations should be removed in view of their past advocacy or support of activities that many members of our community would today find abhorrent.

I would like this committee to articulate general principles to help determine when the names of such historical figures should or should not continue to be associated with Harvard buildings, spaces, professorships, programs, or other named objects. In its deliberation, the committee should consider the following: 

  • How should judgments about removing names or artifacts take into account not only the individual’s failings and flaws but also the individual’s positive contributions to the University and to society?  
  • How should we view activities or beliefs that are inconsistent with our community values today but that may have been viewed differently during the individual’s lifetime or at the time the decision was made to name something for the individual? 
  • Are there circumstances in which a historical figure’s name should be removed, or retained, for some purposes (or in some places) but not others?
  • If a name or artifact is not removed, what is the institution’s responsibility to present a candid and balanced account of the individual’s failings as well as contributions? 
  • If a name or artifact is removed, what is the institution’s responsibility to preserve, and not simply erase, the history of the individual’s association with Harvard? 
  • What processes should govern decisions in individual cases to remove a name [or an artifact] from a building, space, program, or other object? 

He also noted that peer institutions have contended with these issues—notably, in Yale’s decision to rename its Calhoun College (a residential House) and Princeton’s recent decision to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from its public-policy school and a dormitory. In both cases, after initially declining to rename, the institutions reviewed the decision and their processes, and then decided to rename the facilities and school in question.

Yale’s decision followed the report of a Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming, and then that of a subsequent committee that applied those principles to the Calhoun issue. The renaming committee established as principles that “renaming on account of values should be an exceptional event”; that “sometimes renaming on the basis of values is warranted” (based on considerations, among others, of whether the “principal legacy of the namesake” is “fundamentally at odds with the mission of the University,” and whether “the relevant principal legacy [was] significantly contested in the time and place in which the namesake lived”);  and that “decisions to retain a name or to rename come with obligations of nonerasure, contextalization, and process.”

Bacow asked Harvard’s committee to review these and other similar decisions to see what Harvard might learn from them.

Under Faust, Harvard began to explore its relationship to slavery—work that has now extended to a project investigating “Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery.”

In addition to Faust, the committee members are:

  • Vincent Brown, Warren professor of American history, professor of African and African American studies
  • Sherri Ann Charleston, chief diversity and inclusion officer
  • Suzannah “Suzie” Clark, Knafel professor of music
  • Andrew Crespo, professor of law
  • Philip Deloria, Saltonstall professor of history 
  • Elijah DeVaughn, Harvard College Class of 2021 
  • Archon Fung, McCormack professor of citizenship and self-government
  • Annette Gordon-Reed, Loeb University Professor 
  • David Laibson, Goldman professor of economics and co-faculty dean, Lowell House 
  • Erika Naginski, Hubbard professor of architectural history, Harvard Graduate School of Design 
  • David Oxtoby, President, American Academy of Arts and Sciences; former member (2008-14) and president (2013-14), Harvard University Board of Overseers; former president, Pomona College
  •  Jin Park, Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology M.D.-Ph.D candidate, Harvard Medical School 
  • Scott Podolsky, professor of global health and social medicine
  • Diana Sorensen, Rothenberg professor of Romance languages and literatures and of comparative literature
  • Meredith Weenick, vice president for campus services

The committee will deliver its report to the president. No deadline has been announced for the completion of its work. Read the University announcement here.

Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg
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