As institutions of higher education in the United States continue to debate what to do about buildings and spaces honoring historical figures now considered to be white supremacists, two researchers in UT’s Department of Geography are offering a guide they hope will help the conversation.
Jordan Brasher, a doctoral student, and Derek Alderman, a professor, have penned a paper examining how various universities have handled controversies surrounding campus spaces that commemorate white supremacists. They also suggest tools—including a landscape impact assessment—that university administrators can use moving forward as they face decisions regarding the names of campus buildings or other spaces.
“We want to help campus decision makers understand why commemorative controversies matter and how to navigate them in ways that promote social justice,” said Brasher, the study’s lead author.
The study is published in the journal Papers in Applied Geography. Co-author is Joshua Inwood of Pennsylvania State University.
The paper notes that colleges and universities face numerous conundrums: during the antebellum period, many university presidents and faculty members owned slaves. Many universities in the Southeast and beyond used slave labor to build their campuses. Some universities used slaves for work in daily operations. Others heavily invested in or purchased and sold land that would be worked with slave labor and then turned for a profit to fund the school. Some universities eventually became battlegrounds for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
The authors suggest that the overrepresentation of buildings named for white people implies the white historical narrative is more valued than the contributions and history of people of color and points to larger patterns of social inequality.
In their examination of naming controversies, the authors found that campus administrators often wanted to resolve these debates quickly to get out of the media spotlight and quell negative attention. In their haste, they did not grasp why the monuments, memorials, and place names were a problem for people of color among their constituency. The administrators saw them simply as value-neutral historical markers.
The study reveals that many universities facing renaming controversies did not have a formal democratic process for handling them.
“They may haphazardly convene committees or solicit advice from various interests, but rarely is there a robust democratic mechanism for approaching such controversies in ways that incorporate undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty’s voices—especially campus citizens in all those categories that also belong to a marginalized social group,” Brasher said.
To assist, the authors suggest the use of a landscape impact assessment, a tool created by legal scholars that the authors adapt for renaming controversies. Similar to an environmental impact assessment, it calls for campus administrators tasked with naming or renaming a building to hold a formal period of review during which they solicit feedback about potential names from students, faculty, staff, and the public.
The authors found that universities often lack care in the way they resolve tensions associated with the renaming process. When students are successful at campaigning to get the name of a former white supremacist or slaveholder removed, they often have someone in mind who should be honored instead, Brasher said.
But many universities opt for a neutral name—which eliminates controversy but doesn’t address the underrepresentation and misrepresentation of people of color in memorials and on buildings.
Rather than moving toward a color-blind approach, the authors suggest that colleges and universities implement policies that explicitly honor the histories and contributions of local African Americans connected to their campuses whose legacies may not be reflected on named spaces.
The paper addresses the concern that changing a building’s name might be erasing history.
“The idea that renaming a building that commemorates a white supremacist, Confederate soldier, or slaveholder is erasing history rests on the faulty idea that our memorial landscapes were ever complete, objective historical records in the first place,” Brasher said.
Few of them contain any interpretive information about the person they honor as a monument or memorial might, he said. Building names serve no historical or contextual function other than to simply honor a person’s legacy, whether that person has historical significance or donated money to the university.
“Renaming a building is not erasing history, precisely because building names are not and never have been a historical memoir or archival record,” Brasher said.
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