Just outside the University of Mississippi’s main administrative building, a statue of a Confederate soldier stands atop a 22-foot shaft. The statue, bearing the inscription “To Our Confederate Dead, 1861–1865” is one of many representations of Confederate figures on campus. But, in July, the university announced plans to rename a building honoring a white supremacist after a committee recommended the change, citing the criteria laid out in Yale’s principles for renaming.
As members of the Yale community embrace the transition from Calhoun College to Grace Hopper College, universities across the country are in the process of addressing their own institutional manifestations of the nation’s history of racism.
“Things like the Charleston shooting and the Charlottesville neo-Nazi protests have put issues like this front and center on the agenda,” said John Witt, who chaired Yale’s Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming. “And it’s not a coincidence that universities and cities all around the country, in fact all around the world, are thinking about these things right now.”
In February 2014, a monument to James Meredith, the first black man to graduate from the University of Mississippi, was defaced when two men tied a noose around the statue’s neck and unfurled an old version of the Georgia state flag that depicted a symbol of the Confederacy. A few months later, then-Chancellor of the University Dan Jones released an action plan including six recommendations to improve the climate of diversity on campus.
Beginning that year, a committee began to contextualize the prominent Confederate statue on campus. But in an effort to get more feedback from the University of Mississippi community, Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter chartered the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on History and Context in March 2016 to address item five of the 2014 action plan — to contextualize Mississippi’s ties to slavery, secession, segregation and their aftermath.
The committee’s report recommended the renaming of Vardaman Hall, which honored James K. Vardaman, a former Mississippi governor who advocated for white populism, among other racist policies. The committee also encouraged the reconsideration for the creation of contextual recognitions for several other university namesakes and a walking tour of the history of race on campus.
“The renaming of any building requires caution and sensitivity, to the campus, to its students, staff and faculty and to the constituents of the University,” the report states. “Yale University’s Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming provides an excellent guide to this difficult process.”
As governor, Vardaman jeopardized the African-American schooling system by advocating for a system under which African-American taxpayers alone would be responsible for funding the schools. He also advocated for the repeal of the 14th and 15th Amendments, which gave African Americans the right to attain citizenship and vote.
According to Advisory Committee on History and Context Chair Donald Coole, the committee relied heavily on Yale’s CEPR report, guidelines that University President Peter Salovey tasked the committee with creating after students and faculty criticized the University’s decision to maintain the name Calhoun.
The University of Mississippi’s report outlines how Vardaman Hall qualifies under each of Yale’s principles for renaming, citing Vardaman’s minimal influence on the university at-large and the exceptionally odious impact of his racist legacy that contradicts the university’s mission.
“James K. Vardaman … was an individual who ‘actively promoted some morally odious practice,’ or dedicated much of [his life] to upholding that practice,” the report reads, directly quoting Yale’s renaming principles. “Considering the virulent racism that remains Vardaman’s principal legacy, retaining the name will make unwarranted connections between the University and Vardaman.”
Citing a passage from the Yale CEPR report, the committee noted that the principal legacies of L. Q. C. Lamar and Augustus B. Longstreet, two other campus namesakes who advocated for slavery, were “unexceptional,” unlike Vardaman, who was an “exceptional” case and “distinctly unworthy of honor.”
While the committee concluded that Lamar and Longstreet were legitimate namesakes, it recommended adding contextualization to the buildings named in their honor.
“[Contextualization] brings clarity of the past to the present and that clarity comes through new meaning, it comes through reconciling, it comes through tolerance, it comes through reconciling with the past,” Coole said. “And so, we give current meaning and disposition and reasoning and explanation to events and symbols and places and things that have happened in the past for reasons which heretofore were not given.”
In the same month that the University of Mississippi chartered its committee on university history, Stanford University established its own committee to create principles for renaming after faculty and students called for the renaming of campus sites that honor Junipero Serra.
Serra — whose name adorns a street, a student dormitory and a house at Stanford — was a founder of the Catholic mission in California in the eighteenth century. He became the first Hispanic saint after Pope Francis canonized him in 2015.
But Serra’s legacy is also marred by criticism. His arrival in California in 1769 left the Native American population ravaged by disease. Often forced into labor, Native Americans who tried to leave the mission were shackled and wounded.
As Stanford grapples with Serra’s history, a committee with faculty and students intends to publish its own principles for renaming later this year. Among several reports at other universities, the Stanford group discussed Yale’s report to determine its own general principles, said university archaeologist committee staff member Laura Jones.
Unlike Yale and the University of Mississippi, Jones said that Stanford — by virtue of its location — does not struggle with an institutional relationship with slavery. But Jones noted that there are underlying connections between the debates taking place at Stanford and Yale.
“The main thing that it has in common is the paying attention to the contemporary campus climate,” Jones said. “There’s also a really important element of community that I think crosscuts the history issues.”
At the University of Michigan, faculty and students have moved to rename a building honoring C. C. Little, a former university president, geneticist and eugenicist. In September, a group of four faculty members and an undergraduate submitted a formal case for the name change to the President’s Advisory Committee on University History.
The building named for Little sits adjacent to a major bus stop on campus, making C.C Little a part of people’s everyday vernacular, said Matthew Countryman ’86, an alumnus of Calhoun College and a member of the group that submitted the proposal.
“We are addressing practices of discrimination and racism in a northern institution in the same era, the Jim Crow era, that the Calhoun College was named,” Countryman said.
The group’s proposal cites the renaming of Calhoun as an example of a university choosing to rename a building because of a history of slavery, racism and discrimination.
Although Yale’s CEPR report justified the renaming of Calhoun, Countryman said, Yale’s principles appear to protect the namesakes of other slaveholders affiliated with the University. He added that contributions to the University appear to justify retaining a namesake, such as George Berkeley who donated a slave plantation to the University. Unlike at Yale, the principles at Michigan, established by the President’s Advisory Committee on University History, will allow a broader debate, he said.
“The fact that someone made a major imprint on the university is definitely a factor to be taking into account,” said Witt, the chair of the Yale committee. “It won’t be determinative, but it’s something I think a major decisionmaker would want to think about before changing a name or move or alter a monument.”
Grace Murray Hopper graduated from Vassar College in 1928.
Hailey Fuchs | [email protected]