The Collegian
Friday, December 02, 2022

OPINION: Despite name changes, the Board will stay the same

<p>Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian</p>

Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian

Editor's note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.   

I was glad to hear the Board of Trustees had voted to change six building names on March 28. But, my knowledge of the Naming Principles Commission recommendations the Board adopted makes me wary of UR’s future. Last year, after interviewing former Dean of Arts & Sciences Patrice Rankine, I wrote an article about the Commission's creation. The experience informed me of the Board’s true intentions and hidden agenda: the Board’s purpose for the Commission was to obstruct student activism while appearing cooperative. The Final Recommendations for renaming released on March 25 proved to me that the Commission’s purpose is to validate the Board’s behavior. Therefore, the Commission's history demonstrates that renaming buildings is not a solution to UR’s problems. The announcement of the removal of the names illustrates that the Board refuses to learn and responds to demands for structural change by offering symbolic victories.

On April 22, 2021, I opened Zoom and interviewed Rankine. I assumed our conversation would be no more important than that of a journalism class assignment until asking him about the recently announced Commission. Having observed classmates and professors alike describe the Commission as an attempt by the Board to run out the clock, his answer surprised me. Rankine said the Commission was a sincere effort and revealed that he, alongside the other four campus deans, had suggested it to the Board.

The Commission’s announcement from April 12, 2021, does not mention the deans’ open letter. The Board simply stated: “Many members of the University community have recommended that we undertake a deliberate process to establish specific principles to guide decisions about renaming.” The new Commission seemed to work too conveniently towards the Board’s interests while ignoring key features of the deans’ proposal. Therefore, I viewed with suspicion what Rankine seemed to perceive as a sincere effort by the Board.

The Commission’s establishment was a response to campus and nationwide pressures. Following Paul Queally’s March 26, 2021, statements, the UR Faculty Senate passed a vote of no confidence. In addition to requests for renaming, academic accommodations, and subsidized mental health services the Black Student Coalition added three addendum demands to the Protect Our Web statement. Discontent had reached national organizations, and the Washington Post published critical articles in late March and early April. The Board found itself isolated and under pressure across the country.

I suspect they first listened to the deans because they felt alone and were in desperate need of allies. However, the Board’s announcement of this proposal shows that from the outset, it distorted the truth to relieve themselves of pressure. Saying the Commission was a recommendation by “many members of the University community” implied they had communicated with students and faculty, not just the deans. Refusing to reference or circulate the deans’ open letter, which the Board could have shown students, demonstrates a reluctance to be open and honest. The deans could have more actively and immediately clarified to students details about the Commission’s origins. But because the Board spoke misleadingly in its initial announcement, the Commission’s foundation is a dishonest response to sincere concerns.

Moreover, the Board’s newly established Commission ignored some of the deans’ key worries. The deans’ open letter stresses that renaming is an issue that demands immediate redress. “The harm that has occurred is extremely serious and is getting worse,” and that “all of this will [not] blow over once students leave for the summer,” the deans wrote. Then, they explained the danger of inaction, that “without a significant change in course, we are on track to suffer deep injury as a community.”

The deans’ proposal emphasized that the Commission would not just facilitate renaming, but work towards structural change at the Board level. It would address the “deep distrust… settling into the community [and the] growing skepticism about whether our long-stated goals of diversity and inclusion are fully embraced by University leadership.” But when it appeared in the Board’s announcement, the Commission only sought to address the issue of campus names. What’s worse, the Board declared that it would suspend the process of renaming until finalizing the Commission. In theory, the Board was pursuing a solution. In actuality, it had found an excuse to continue its exact same behavior, remove discussion of renaming from the table and portray its actions as an attempt to meet student needs.

UR announced name changes of six halls on March 28, but the Commission’s March 25 recommendations reveal the Board was prepared for renaming the week before. An investigation of these recommendations discloses that the Board has given up on keeping the names of Robert Ryland and Douglas Southall Freeman but not on keeping the power to overrule student interests. What is worrying is how the Commission’s final proposals do not create an easy way for students to hold the Board accountable. 

The Commission’s Final Recommendations consist of two sections: ten Naming Principles outlining what constitutes an appropriate name, and the Procedures for the Application of the Principles to Questions of Possible Name Removal. Of the Naming Principles, the sixth and seventh spelled the end for Ryland and Freeman’s names before Monday's announcement. Number six states that “No building, program, professorship, or other entity at the University should be named for a person who directly engaged in the trafficking and/or enslavement or others or openly advocated for [enslavement].” Number seven explains that having a “material role in the promotion of segregation [and] eugenics” is grounds for naming disqualification. These principles expressly prohibit buildings named after people who committed the abuses of which Ryland and Freeman are culpable. Before the weekend started the Board must have already known that it would vote to rename these buildings on campus. Perhaps it was already prepared to vote to remove the other four as well.

Other principles have much more worrying implications, especially when analyzed in conjunction with the outlined procedure for name removal. Particularly, principle ten claims “The University’s Board of Trustees retains final authority for decisions about namings, de-namings, and re-namings at the University.” These give the Board ultimate final say, regardless of how students and faculty organize.

Moreover, the suggested procedure for students to voice their concerns disproportionately empowers the Board and seems deliberately complicated. The Commission recommends that all requests for name changes be submitted first to the Board’s secretary (who is currently the Board’s vice president), who will decide if the request should be eligible for review. Next, a committee of students alongside faculty and trustees chosen by UR President Kevin Hallock must approve the name change proposal to the Board by a two-thirds vote. Even then, the committee cannot compel the Board to approve. If the Board rejects or modifies this proposal, the committee cannot raise it again barring the arrival of new evidence or circumstances.

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At the three levels of request submission, review and final deliberation, the Board has substantial influence. Meanwhile, for students to voice their opinions, these recommendations require us to navigate a dense, confusing process. The recent removal of names disguises the principal aims of the Board this past year. Though Ryland, Freeman, and other controversial names will change, through the Commission the Board has put in place procedures that will strangle future student activism with red tape.

Throughout its history, the Board has used the Commission as a tool to disguise its true agenda of perpetuating harmful campus practices. By removing names on March 28 the Board put forward a compassionate, understanding face. But the Commission, its history, and its conclusions on how renaming should continue in the future prove that the Board will not address necessary structural issues.

Contact contributor Charlie Tabor at charlie.tabor@richmond.edu.

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