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How Harvard Should Think about Renaming

By Kai R. McNamee
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

A couple of weeks ago, University President Lawrence S. Bacow convened a committee to articulate “general principles” for renaming spaces, programs, and professorships that are connected to “abhorrent” activities at Harvard.

At a base level, we are pleased that President Bacow has taken this necessary and overdue step. Yet, for now, it raises a set of compelling philosophical and procedural questions: What should we rename? And how will we know?

The starting point should be obvious. While the University has numerous stains on its long history, slavery and scientific racism remain the tip of the abhorrence iceberg — from the slave trader who helped found our law school, to Harvard’s ownership of daguerreotypes portraying enslaved individuals. Names affiliated with white supremacy and its atrocities should be the first to go.

But what about the rest? Beyond that particular group, student perspectives become crucial. How should a queer student feel about living in Greenough Hall or Lowell House, knowing that they owe their names to the perpetrators of a homophobic witchhunt that resulted in a student suicide? Or Black, Jewish, and immigrant students sorted into Lowell, named after a man who sought to solve the “Jewish problem” at Harvard by implementing a quota, banned Black students from living in Harvard Yard, and supported harsh restrictions on immigration due to his views of genetic racial differences. What about having to visit the Sackler Building after having lost a close relative or friend to the opioid epidemic?

The weight given to these perspectives will vary — sometimes they will warrant a name change and sometimes they will fall short. Yet listening to these perspectives should be a critical component in deciding when or what to rename, and it is important that there is cooperation between administrators and students. There should be some kind of institutional pathway that does not put the onus of reminding the University of the questionable parts of its history entirely on students, but one that respects students’ inputs.

A petition model could fit this purpose: If a certain amount of student signatures is received by a petition, then a renaming committee assembled from the community would convene to hold a hearing on the name at hand. The person whose name is in consideration must be assessed on the entirety of their work, beliefs, and character. There is a space for complicated figures from our past if their contributions are properly contextualized. However, there will also be those who, even when placed in context, stand as emblems and figureheads of the suffering and cruelty endured by others, particularly those in marginalized groups.

For these people, there should be no space on Harvard’s campus: no name plaques, no endowed professorships, no honors. Tradition and cherished memories alone can’t be enough to outweigh the degradation of human life that is perpetrated by certain donors or honorees.

Forgetting our past — pretending that our institution always lived up to basic moral standards — is not how we make our campus a more inclusive, supportive, and intellectually rigorous environment. The University has to dig into its history and prepare to take action accordingly.

To be sure, digging for past grievances, without taking concrete steps to remedy that history, could actively create harm now — it reminds our student body that our funny-sounding halls frequently honor individuals who denied the core humanity of those who occupy them now and that our campus’ embrace of diversity is an upsettingly recent phenomenon. So we must be judicious about how we dig.

What’s more, we can’t merely apply this scrutiny merely to the past. Sackler, for example, is not an old building name (1985), nor is Chan a particularly old name for the public health school (2014). The University is making these choices in the present, and any oversight we apply to the past needs to also be geared toward how the University makes decisions going forward.

And, of course, there’s always room to think bigger. With so many buildings named after so many questionable figures, why not consider a building — a museum maybe — dedicated to the study and commemoration of the complexity and darkness of Harvard’s history.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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