Harvard Articulates Principles for “Denaming”

Faust-led committee addresses building and professorship naming decisions “profoundly antithetical” to present values.

Drew Faust
Drew Faust chaired the committee on principles for de- or renaming.Photograph courtesy of Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

The Committee to Articulate Principles on Renaming, appointed by President Lawrence S. Bacow in October 2020 and led by president emerita Drew Faust, today released its report on the circumstances under which individuals’ names or representations might be removed from University buildings, programs, or professorships “in view of their past advocacy or support of activities that many members or our community would today find abhorrent.” Although the report—which is informed by history and by the experiences of other institutions—arrives at rigorous principles and processes for “denaming” or “renaming,” and processes for deciding such cases, it was not intended to and will not directly result in any such actions. It arrives in the context of several other efforts to reckon with and make intentional decisions about how Harvard perceives and presents its past.

The issue is not an abstract one on campus. Harvard Law School has changed its shield, given its prior association with a founding benefactor who was a slaveholder. The faculty deans of Lowell House have relocated representations of Abbott Lawrence Lowell—a former Harvard president, whom they associated with racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic views and actions—and prompted a wider discussion of the House’s name. (“Faculty dean” is itself a 2016 retitling of the position formerly known as “House master”—a decision accompanied by some controversy.) Critics of the Sackler family, associated through their pharmaceutical company with the lethal opioid epidemic, have called for renaming the eponymous museum (the donor, Arthur M. Sackler, pioneered pharmaceutical advertising, but died a decade before Purdue Pharma introduced OxyContin, the compound associated with the epidemic.) Others, critical of A. Alfred Taubman, who was convicted of price-fixing, have advocated removing his name from the Kennedy School’s building and center for state and local government. In a slightly different vein, the University, under President Faust, added to the names associated with Wadsworth House in 2016 by affixing a plaque naming Titus, Venus, Juba, and Bilhah, who lived and worked there as enslaved persons in the households of President Benjamin Wadsworth and President Edward Holyoke.

Unsurprisingly, in her new role as chair of the committee, Faust, an accomplished scholar of the greatest controversy in American history, the Civil War, worked with her fellow members to produce an historically nuanced discussion of what names meant when they were conferred, how those meanings evolve, and the conditions under which Harvard might want to do something about those changing conditions and understandings. The committee included faculty members with obvious expertise—Warren professor of American history and professor of African and African American studies Vincent Brown, Saltonstall professor of history Philip Deloria, and Loeb University Professor Annette Gordon-Reed—plus some of their colleagues, students, and representatives of alumni and staff. They consulted widely in the community, and drew on other institutions’ experiences—including Yale’s protracted deliberations that resulted in the renaming of Calhoun College (as undergraduate Houses are known in New Haven), and Princeton’s decision to shed from its public-policy school and a residential college the name of Woodrow Wilson, president of both that university and the United States, and a staunch racist. 

The Committee Frames the Context

In taking up its work, the Faust committee determined that “our task required us to look not just at the kind of denaming President Bacow specified, but to explore the meaning of naming at Harvard more generally, to ask how and why Harvard has chosen and used names in both the past and present, and why naming matters.” Members of the University community today, the committee noted, are the heirs and beneficiaries of its nearly 400-year history. But, 

At the same time, we inherit aspects of the past that are at odds with values and commitments of the present. Harvard benefited from the colonization of Native lands, resources, and remains; Harvard co-existed with—and profited from—slavery for more than two centuries; Harvard reflected and often vigorously embraced widely accepted hierarchies and injustices of gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and sexuality. Yet the University has constantly examined and adapted its own principles and practices, opening its doors, although far too slowly, to those it so long excluded. 

On the other hand, the committee’s report continues, 

[A]s we have come to recognize, an end to exclusion is not equivalent to genuine inclusion. History lingers and must be directly confronted if we are to create a more just, equitable, and fully welcoming community in which every member can thrive and contribute to the University’s mission of research, teaching, and service. The names Harvard uses cannot be separated from the values the University seeks to model and embrace: the belief in the pursuit of truth as our shared purpose; the belief in the power of learning to develop human capacity that can serve the world; the belief in the worth and potential of every member of the University community; the belief that diversity offers the strongest possible foundation for our strength because it encourages excellence and enables us to educate and challenge one another; the belief that each of us bears obligations toward one another and toward something greater than ourselves. 

As names have accreted—attached to buildings, space, rituals, programs, professorships, scholarships, and prizes—“Sometimes we may use a historic name with little or no knowledge of its origin or namesake.…” A name may linger, as “when we involve Radcliffe as a marker of a longstanding commitment to the education of women….” And, most significantly, names change: the Business School has changed the names of 12 of its 37 buildings, and its campus is just more than a century old; and new names appear regularly, of late driven by philanthropy (most notably in the emergence of the Harvard Chan School and the Harvard Paulson School, of public health and engineering and applied sciences, respectively).

Overall, then, “A landscape of names that we often take to have been unchanging has in reality reflected a degree of dynamism we should acknowledge as an integral part of Harvard’s evolution.” That language is striking: in describing the report of the Task Force on Visual Culture and Signage to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences on December 7, its chair, Robin Kelsey, dean of arts and humanities and Burden professor of photography, emphasized that those attributes of the campus are dynamic as well—and made the point that the faculty could be intentional about the visual culture it wished to exhibit.

The renaming committee made much the same point, noting that “Harvard’s names represent an archaeology that has accreted and shifted over time and an ecology in which each name serves as just one constituent part of a larger totality of memory, honor, and gratitude, a landscape where some categories of names are abundant and others scarce, and where the opportunity for introducing new names is not infinite” (emphasis added). That is to say, naming is perforce inclusive of some attributes and exclusive of others—but changeable, within limits. Those limits are obviously less onerous in the case of, say, selecting what portraits to hang, and more restrictive in the case of renaming a professorship or a building to which a name has been affixed—often with legal restrictions.

And what of the “archaeology” and “ecology” of Harvard’s current names? The committee observed:

The names we have been given from Harvard’s first three-and-three-quarter centuries overwhelmingly represent one dimension of the University’s past: men of elite status, power, and importance from eras quite different from our own. The names we have inherited omit—and even erase—the experiences of a wide variety of individuals who were part of Harvard from its earliest beginnings: Native Americans, whose education was a fundamental motivation for the original founding of Harvard College; enslaved workers like those who lived and toiled during the eighteenth century in the presidential dwelling at Wadsworth House; women, whose presence and labor, the distinguished historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich reminds us, were always an essential part of the University centuries before they were ever candidates for degrees. As Harvard has become more open over the last century and a half, other once-excluded groups have become essential members of our community in a way that is not well reflected in Harvard’s landscape of names. The past we have preserved through naming is partial and incomplete. [emphasis added]

Some of those names Harvard has preserved “are deeply troubling” in light of contemporary beliefs and practices. But the committee urges some humility. In face of demands for denaming (the removal of those names), “neither hagiography nor raw condemnation is likely to encompass and explain the full complexity of a life a name may represent.” How to proceed?

As an institution committed to the rigorous pursuit of fact and truth—to Veritas— we must ground our efforts in historical inquiry as we endeavor to more fully understand and weigh the choices these namesakes made in the context of lives shaped by different forces and imperatives than our own. As we consider removing names, we should examine these lives with humility, recognizing that our own ideas and behavior may one day be looked upon with dismay by generations to come. At the same time, we should seek to introduce other names from the past that we have not recognized, names that can serve as beacons to the future to which we aspire—a historic throughline for our values. [emphasis added]

In the spirit of developing “a more complete and clear-eyed view of our past that acknowledges bases for both pride and regret,” the committee urges that the community “should approach our history through reckoning, not forgetting” (emphasis added).

Principles and Processes

Thus grounded, the committee proposed the following principles for denaming. Any such decisions, “like the lives of those whose names are under scrutiny,” are “likely to be complex, with members of the Harvard community divided about the proper outcome.” The terms for making such determinations are:

•A case for removal will be strongest when a committee acting in accordance with the principles and processes described below concludes that the name creates a harmful environment that undermines the ability of current students, faculty, or staff to participate fully in the work of the University. 

•Harvard is an institution devoted to research and to rigorous intellectual inquiry. These are commitments that should guide the evaluation of any name being considered for removal. These values will—and should—mean that the process of considering removal of a name will be careful, painstaking, and laborious and should not be undertaken lightly. A decision to dename should be based on the strength and clarity of the historical evidence, including an understanding of why our forebears originally selected the name. 

•The case for removing an individual’s name will be strongest when the behaviors now seen as morally repugnant are a significant component of that individual’s legacy when viewed in the full context of the namesake’s life. 

•The case for denaming is stronger if the namesake’s actions or beliefs we now regard as abhorrent would have been regarded as objectionable in the namesake’s own time. 

•A case for denaming is stronger when the entity in question is central to University life and community and to the identity and experience of students, staff, or faculty. 

•The possibility of retaining a name and contextualizing it as a symbol of the complexity of Harvard’s past should always be part of a consideration of denaming. A proposal for denaming, whether successful or not, will likely result in an enhancement of historical understanding of the named individual’s life and the original reasons for the selection of the particular name. This record should be made a part of institutional memory regarding the entity in question whether or not it is renamed. Plaques, performances, and portraiture could all be considered means of achieving and disseminating this expanded view of the past.

As to procedure, the committee recommends school-level and University-level processes, depending on the significance and visibility of the entity being considered, but under the president’s oversight in all instances. Thus, a request for denaming would be submitted to the relevant dean, who will determine whether to proceed; consult with the president; and determine whether to do so on a school or University level. In either case, the dean or president would appoint a committee to evaluate the request and make a recommendation. For school-level cases, the dean would decide. For University-level cases, the president would bring the recommendation to the Corporation for a decision .


The committee notes that naming and renaming appear to be concerned with the past, but such decisions are rightly about addressing the future: “how Harvard can become the more just and more equitable institution we strive to build. The past helps to tell us how we got here, but it is up to us to determine how we use that past to propel us toward where we hope to go. Names represent one important part of that commitment. There is much to be done to create the future to which we aspire,” including not only the committee’s work but that of the visual culture and signage task force, and that of the president’s initiative on Harvard and the legacy of slavery, which is expected to report in late winter or early spring. Thus, the renaming committee’s work is part of wider reckoning under way across Harvard.

In conveying the committee’s report to the community, President Bacow lauded its work and the principles it outlined for those proposing de- and renamings to follow. The committee appropriately suggested, he wrote, that “When a particular request passes a rigorous threshold and is deemed to warrant a full review, it should proceed with the understanding that, while naming buildings and other objects at Harvard is a common occurrence, removing such names should be an extraordinary one.”

As someone in a position to know, he continued, “As with so many things at Harvard, the consideration of denaming requests will involve a balance and interplay of local and central responsibilities” (and, he might have added, local and central and other interests, intensely held and expressed). With that in mind, Bacow moved to put the report’s recommendations into effect, by asking the schools to “develop their own processes for consideration of such requests. Some such requests will be handled at the school level; others, with broader dimensions, will warrant University-level review. Members of the Academic Council and our designees will work toward processes that strike the right balance of local discretion and University-wide coordination, that invite and take account of varied perspectives, and that aim to bring about consensus rather than contentiousness.”

Whether consensus indeed is achieved, Bacow wrote, everyone in the community “will no doubt learn from experience as cases arise.” And how. Perhaps in the spirit of the season, he concluded, “I trust that the committee’s contributions will help us address tough questions with a commitment, as always, to generous listening and learning in pursuit of truth.”

Read the committee’s report here.



Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg

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