Published February 28, 2019
What does a university’s broader landscape of names say about the university?
On Wednesday, the Office of Inclusive Excellence (OIX) sponsored an open forum to examine that question, along with others that focus on the impact of linking historical names, associations and signs with the present — especially if the past conflicts with contemporary ideals of social justice and political equity.
“Legacies on the Landscape: Buildings and Names at UB,” held in the Student Union Landmark Room on the North Campus, was the latest event in the Difficult Conversation (DifCon) series presented by OIX.
Colleges and universities across the nation, along with UB, are grappling with often furious debates over the legacies of historical figures whose names grace buildings, campus grounds, statues, rooms and sometimes the odd space or fixture.
“The desire to leave a legacy is noble,” Despina Stratigakos, vice provost for inclusive excellence, told the group. “As that song from ‘Hamilton’ asks: ‘Legacy, what is a legacy?’
“Today at campuses across the country, that question — or a version of it — is being asked,” Stratigakos said. “We have to begin: How do we approach difficult legacies? Our discussion is part of a much larger national conversation, where universities are sometimes grappling hard with troubling legacies.”
“In higher education, we are in a kind of unique environment for universities who are confronting their legacies,” said Carole Emberton, associate professor of history and a member of the event panel.
“Recent, well-known examples include Georgetown University, confronted with the challenge that, early in its history, in order to get out of debt, the university’s Jesuit founders sold about 300 enslaved people,” Emberton said. “This fact received national and international attention.
“At the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Silent Sam, a Civil War-era monument on the UNC campus that some see as a symbol of racism and others a symbol of history, has brought protests and demonstrations by students and others on both sides of the controversy.”
As a result, the UNC administration has been forced to confront these issues, Emberton said.
A contested legacy left at UB by Millard Fillmore, the university’s first chancellor and the nation’s 13th president, was also a point of discussion during the event.
“Fillmore’s founding role in many of Buffalo’s greatest civic institutions is celebrated, while, as president in 1850, Fillmore’s signature on the Fugitive Slave Act, and the suffering that law caused among African-Americans, is an aspect of his legacy that we are less proud of,” said Emberton.
Beth Del Genio, chief of staff in the Office of the President and a panel member, said that as universities confront the challenges presented by difficult legacies, thought must be given to a legacy’s impact on communities.
“There are both internal and external stakeholders who must be brought into the discussion,” Del Genio said. “And the process has to be transparent to be seen as legitimate.
“There have been furious debates over difficult issues and legacies at Georgetown, UNC, Princeton and Charlottesville, among many others,” she told the group.
“When we look at where we are in terms of a historical moment — in the context of others — let’s bring those contexts to our consideration. Context, as well as proportionality, are key to any actions or decisions that are made.”
Keeping the context in which a building or place was named for a particular person can often be difficult, Kelly Hayes McAlonie, director of campus planning, noted to the panel and those attending the event.
“Years — and often decades later — the reasons for naming a building or space can be lost to the past,” she said. “This challenge is also part of managing, or honoring, a legacy.”
Benjamin Blanchet, editorial editor of The Spectrum and a panel member, responded, saying, “In preparing for this panel — and this event — I spent time speaking with students regarding their recollections for the names of several of this university’s most well-known buildings and spaces.
“What I found is that their knowledge of who these individuals were and why UB has buildings linked to their names was often hazy or unclear,” he said. “Which speaks to your point: discovering the reasons why, say, a building was named for a particular person means understanding the context under which that decision was made.
“Some of the more obscure facts of history can be little-known to those of us who are here today,” Blanchet said.
Emberton added: “Memorializing is easy to do, but if the context under which a decision was made is not reaffirmed or made clear, it will be lost, and the reason for naming a building or space after a particular person will become a mystery.
“This is when inconvenient facts of history, or acts committed that have long been forgotten, can very quickly provide the spark for a controversy today,” she said.
“We should understand the role that we play, as a university, in shaping the lives of the students we educate,” said panel member Danielle Johnson, senior adviser and coordinator in UB’s Acker Scholars program.
Johnson explained that education empowers students, enabling them to understand their times — and history — and to move forward to affect change.
“(Human rights activist and author) Angela Davis — who is speaking at UB tonight — is a perfect example,” she said. “She gained her understanding of the world around her while she was in college. That also means learning to interpret historical context.
“As a university, what we do should be grounded in how we provide an education,” Johnson said.
Emberton said that she recently asked students in one of her history classes what UB should do about Millard Fillmore. “They understood who he was, his importance to UB, as well as his having signed the Fugitive Slave Act as president.
“But, to my surprise, no one wanted to pull his name off of anything at UB because of the Fugitive Slave Act,” she said. “Instead, they wanted to do something to remember and memorialize those who were affected by that law — to commemorate their legacies, rather than fight to disassociate the university from the legacy of its first chancellor.
“Standing up and making their own statement on this issue, and remembering victims of an unjust act was more important to them,” Emberton said.
In managing difficult legacies, Del Genio told the group: “If it can be challenged, it will be challenged. In considering difficult legacies, we need to be inclusive.
“It is better to find a pathway. To be fair, honest and act with integrity. Solving problems often means anticipating problems and being able to bring people together.”