University President Lawrence S. Bacow launched a committee Monday to form “general principles” for renaming spaces, programs, and professorships at Harvard that are linked to “abhorrent” activities.
Former University President Drew G. Faust will chair the 16-person committee, which includes faculty, staff, students, and alumni.
In his charge to the committee, Bacow asked that they “articulate general principles to help determine when the names of such historical figures should or should not continue to be associated” with Harvard.
“I think Harvard is always better when we’re willing to be self-critical, or at least ask in a serious way, ‘How can we become a more enlightened institution?'’” Bacow said in a press release. “To do that, we need to engage people who have both the willingness to ask difficult questions and the courage to answer them in ways that may ultimately challenge us.”
He asked that members consider questions like how to take account not only the “failings and flaws” of various historical figures, but also their “positive contributions to the University and to society,” and how to “preserve, not simply erase,” an individual’s association with Harvard if their name is removed.
The committee includes several historians, including Faust, who is a historian of the Civil War and the American South.
Bacow said they will bring an “informed and nuanced understanding” of history and past decisions, but also how the perception of this history changed over time.
“We also have to be humble about our ability to judge the decisions of our predecessors,” he said.
Over the summer, students circulated a petition that called for the renaming of Mather House, which is named after Increase Mather, a former Harvard president and slave owner. Petition organizers wrote that other buildings named after white slaveholders include Lowell House, Wadsworth House, and Agassiz House.
Previously, students called for Harvard Law School to retire its seal due to ties to slavery; the school complied in 2016.
Several institutions across the country have also grappled with the issue of renaming on their campuses. In 2017, Yale University removed the name of John C. Calhoun, a staunch defender of slavery, from one of its residential colleges. In June, Princeton University cut former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson — who promoted racist views and policies — from its School of Public and International Affairs.
Bacow encouraged the committee to review reports from these institutions during their discussions.
He also asked them to consider an institution’s responsibility when they choose not to remove an individual’s name — such as how they “present a candid and balanced account” of their failings, in addition to their contribution.
Faust said issues of renaming have long been a concern to her, making her a “good match” to chair the committee.
“I think all the committee members recognize that this is a moment when our nation’s long-articulated commitments to justice and equality must at last be realized,” she said in a press release. “The time is here.”
Other members include Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Sherri A. Charleston, Vice President for Campus Services Meredith Weenick ’90, former President of the Board of Overseers David W. Oxtoby ’72, Jin Park ’18, Elijah C. DeVaughn ’21, and numerous high profile professors, including Annette Gordon Reed, Philip J. Deloria, and David I. Liabson ’88.
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