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Race on Campus

What national conversations about racial equity and inclusion mean for you and your institution. Delivered on Tuesdays.

December 1, 2020

From: Fernanda Zamudio-Suarez

Subject: Could Renaming Campus Buildings Stall the Fight for Racial Justice?

Welcome to Race on Campus, a newsletter about racial equity in higher education. I'm Fernanda Zamudio-Suarez, an audience editor here at The Chronicle. I'll write this newsletter with my colleagues Sarah Brown, Katherine Mangan, and Vimal Patel.

In our first issue, Sarah interviews Jonathan Holloway, a historian who is president of Rutgers University, about debates at many institutions over renaming buildings or removing statues that honor racist figures. Holloway is skeptical of that approach.

If you have ideas, comments, or questions, write me: fernanda@chronicle.com. Until then, here's Sarah.

Beware of Self-Congratulation

Jonathan Holloway believes that 2020's racial reckoning is the most significant in his lifetime. But the new president is skeptical that renaming campus buildings is the right choice.

Holloway took the helm at Rutgers in July, becoming one of the nation's few Black college leaders a month after George Floyd's killing touched off a wave of racial-justice activism. He spent most of his academic career teaching history at Yale University, where he drew national attention in 2015 after about 200 students, most of them Black, confronted him on campus and called him unresponsive to their concerns about racism.

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Jonathan Holloway, president of Rutgers University

Holloway, who was dean of Yale College at the time, had previously overseen a residential college named after John C. Calhoun, a 19th-century advocate of slavery and a white supremacist. Demands to remove Calhoun's name from the college had arisen for decades, but in 2015, student activists put renewed pressure on Holloway and other university leaders to take action.

Holloway initially opposed the idea. “I’m no fan of Calhoun, just as he would be no fan of me,” he said in a recent interview with The Chronicle. But he worried that simply changing the college's name would let Yale off the hook.

“Institutions are very good at congratulating themselves when they do something they should have done a long time ago,” Holloway said. “I worried that if Yale were to change the name, it would pat itself on the back for a job well done. And to me, that kind of erasure was just not acceptable.”

When Holloway led Calhoun College, most students who lived there didn’t know who Calhoun was, he said. University leaders weren’t talking openly enough about Yale’s historical ties to slavery, he said, and as a scholar of the African American experience, he found that problematic.

In April 2016, Yale officials announced that the name would stay, igniting fierce backlash from students and others.

Eventually, Holloway changed his mind about Calhoun. That shift started, he said, when he was participating in a panel discussion. A colleague said he shared Holloway’s sensibilities about needing to frankly discuss the nation’s uncomfortable history of slavery and white supremacy. But the colleague noted: “Not everyone is a professional historian. Not everyone brings that kind of nuance to these issues.” In other words, the high-level scholarly lens wasn’t the way most people would view Calhoun College.

Yale’s senior leaders changed their minds, too, announcing in early 2017 that Calhoun College would become Grace Hopper College, in honor of a 1930s graduate who was a leader in early computing.

Renaming as a Distraction

Still, Holloway generally remains opposed to changing institutional names that honor controversial people. He's already faced such questions at Rutgers, which is named after a slaveholder.

In 2017, Rutgers renamed two buildings and a walkway to honor former slaves and the university's first Black graduate. Around the time Holloway became president, a petition calling for more buildings to be renamed garnered thousands of signatures.

Holloway said at his first news conference as president that he would not change the university's name, but that he wanted to talk about the history behind it — and behind the campus buildings named after early leaders who held offensive views. He praised Rutgers and other colleges for talking more about that history in recent years.

According to a spokeswoman, Rutgers officials are working to identify buildings with "complex namesakes" and to develop text for contextual plaques.

In his interview with The Chronicle, Holloway expressed concern that some recent racial-justice activism has rejected thoughtful debate in favor of viral social-media moments. "It's hard to be contemplative," he said. "Really good answers take time."

He said Rutgers has embraced the contemplative approach through its Scarlet and Black Project, an in-depth exploration of the experiences of African Americans and Native Americans there. (The project began in 2015; its next volume will focus on student activism and the contemporary history of students of color.) Holloway also tries to persuade students of the merits of disagreement by sitting down with them one-on-one or in small groups. When he arrived, he told the student-body president that they'd disagree sometimes, but that he'd always be direct and would listen. "Too few of us," he said of college leaders, "really authentically listen to the dissent when it's coming right at us."

During debates over renaming, Holloway also worries that people will lose sight of the deep racial inequities that plague the education system and society at large. “If I had the authority to choose between having Robert E. Lee Highway or having better funding for public schools,” he said, “that’s a no-brainer.”
— Sarah Brown

Read Up

In this section, I’ll share thought-provoking articles and other resources on the role of race in higher ed and society. Send me links to include in future editions: fernanda@chronicle.com.

  • How can companies change their culture when it comes to race and inclusion? The new podcast Race at Work tackles that very question. (Harvard Business Review)
  • For years, this couple has hosted Thanksgiving for lonely Black students and those who could not afford to fly home from the University of Notre Dame. This year the holiday gathering was smaller than usual. (The New York Times)
  • In her latest collection of short stories, The Office of Historical Corrections, Danielle Evans explores ideas of alienation and racial performance. (The New Yorker)
  • There are few Black homeowners in Kurt Streeter's Seattle neighborhood, but this summer the area saw a surge of Black Lives Matter signs on front lawns. The New York Times sports columnist is now jogging with a renewed sense of hope. (The New York Times)

Correction (Dec. 9, 2020, 1:05 p.m.): A previous version of this newsletter incorrectly identified Jonathan Holloway as president of Rutgers University at New Brunswick. Holloway is president of Rutgers University.

Fernanda is newsletter product manager at The Chronicle. She is the voice behind Chronicle newsletters like the Weekly Briefing, Five Weeks to a Better Semester, and more. She also writes about what Chronicle readers are thinking. Send her an email at fernanda@chronicle.com.