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Be Careful With Denaming

By Ian D. Svetkey, Crimson Opinion Writer
Ian D. Svetkey ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Eliot House.

On May 5, after two years of committee research, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay laid out a new process for denaming — removing names from — Harvard entities.

Though the process has flaws — why can’t you, as of today, submit a request to rename a building? — it is reasonable. A denaming request ought to address the person’s life with care, including the moral standards of their own time and the extent to which their legacy is tarnished by problematic actions.

Many advocates of denaming have not been so nuanced, however. In The Crimson Editorial Board’s opinion on the topic, we describe several namesakes of Harvard buildings solely by their worst actions, proclaiming sweepingly that “names affiliated with white supremacy and its atrocities should be the first to go.”

I understand where this line of thinking comes from. These offenses, viewed from a modern perspective, are often repugnant, and implicate aspects of our history that still resonate powerfully today. This makes engaging with them deeply personal and emotional.

Issues of systemic oppression are extremely important, and we should do all we can to address and change that legacy. However, denaming might not be the right strategy.

Many of the namesakes of Harvard entities are people from the old Harvard: University presidents, Massachusetts governors, business tycoons, and the like. And these people had flaws. Take Charles W. Eliot — a member of the Class of 1853, Harvard University President and namesake of Eliot House, he was a staunch opponent of labor unions, in favor of racist policies, and skeptical about educating women. But Eliot, the longest-serving president of Harvard, also elevated the status of the College drastically, embraced courses in the sciences, eliminated strict course requirements to create the modern flexible liberal-arts curriculum, and removed wealth-biased barriers to entering the College like knowledge of Greek. And, while he was in favor of racial segregation, Eliot’s presidency saw Harvard’s first Black graduates, honorees, and professors. There was more to his legacy than the actions we look back on today with shame.

Broadly, questions about legacy and memorial should take into account the entire person, assessing actions in both their original moral context and our modern one. There are situations in which denaming is obviously the correct choice — for someone like Robert E. Lee, whose legacy is doing something horrible. But usually the calculus is more complicated.

One of the issues most often cited in reexaminations of our history is chattel slavery, a horrible injustice, but one that was relatively widespread practice in the 17th century. At least deep down, many seemed to know it was immoral: ministers, for example, urged their congregations to treat enslaved servants with kindness and often published anti-slavery writing.

A good test case is the Mathers, father and son. Increase Mather, Class of 1656, was namesake of Mather House, a minister, President of Harvard, and a complicated man. He participated in the Salem Witch Trials yet advocated that they uphold the presumption of innocence. He opposed freedom of religion but made way for scientific advancement, including promoting smallpox inoculation. And he held one slave, given to him late in life by his son, Cotton Mather, Class of 1678, an active participant in the slave trade. We know almost nothing about Increase’s relationship with this slave, only that he freed him in his will.

Does this tarnish Increase’s legacy enough that we shouldn’t honor him? I’d argue not — his personal impact on slavery was limited, by the standard of the time, and his choice to largely avoid the practice and ultimately free his slave seems to show that he had doubts. But the same doesn’t hold for Cotton, who was doing much more than just playing along.

It’s all well and good to debate the nuances of legacy. But why should we continue to celebrate these people, when there are surely less controversial figures to uphold?

Because Harvard rests on the shoulders of those who have built it. And replacing those names with others — even those whose legacies may have been more upstanding — whitewashes our history. Without them, the next generation will not have an accurate picture of how their new home has developed over time.

Choosing to leave names in place does not imply that we condone the namesakes’ bad behavior. Instead, it conveys that despite their flaws, these people did great good for Harvard, and that this good is not overshadowed by an anachronistic re-assessment of their actions. “As we consider removing names, we should examine these lives with humility,” the denaming committee said, “recognizing that our own ideas and behavior may one day be looked upon with dismay by generations to come.”

The crimes of the past should not be ignored; Harvard’s history should be told in all its ugliness. And, upon critical assessment, there may be people — like Cotton Mather — who deserve retrospective sanction. That’s the purpose, after all, of the denaming request form.

All I mean to do, ultimately, is advise caution. We would set a dangerous precedent by striking people from our collective memory when we judge that their actions have fallen too far behind a shifting moral line. And, more broadly, we should not define people by their greatest failures, nor conflate the ills of past societies writ large with the personal character of actors born into and constrained by them.

“We should approach our history through reckoning, not forgetting,” the committee on denaming wrote. I agree.

Ian D. Svetkey ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Eliot House.

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