It’s no secret that most American universities today are hotbeds of liberal thought, home to hordes of students eager to join the latest progressive movement on campus. One such campaign, which has been making headlines at various institutions throughout the past several months, promotes the renaming of campus buildings.
On Thursday, May 28, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill became the latest institution to succumb to student activists upset with a university building’s name as the Board of Trustees issued an official recommendation to change Saunders Hall. The building honors William Saunders, who was, among other things, a Confederate war veteran and a known leader of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina during the years after the Civil War.
UNC’s decision follows hot on the heels of several other high-profile renaming campaigns at major academic institutions. Last year, Duke University gave in to student demands to rename Aycock Hall, a dormitory building honoring Charles Brantley Aycock, a governor of North Carolina who was involved in Southern white supremacy campaigns in the early twentieth century. Shortly after a coalition of Clemson students marched through campus boasting a list of grievances earlier this year, that university’s administration deliberated over a resolution to rename the campus’s most iconic building, Tillman Hall, which was named for South Carolina governor, U.S. senator, and known white supremacist Benjamin Tillman. And most recently, in March the Black Student Union at the University of California, Berkeley demanded that the school rename a building to honor former Black Panther member Assata Shakur, whom you may also know as a convicted cop-killer and the first woman on the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorists.
Renaming A Building Doesn’t Change History
It’s clear that student protestors perceive an administration’s decision to christen a physical structure after an historical figure as an absolute endorsement or celebration of anything and everything relating to that individual. But that’s entirely not the case. At each of the aforementioned colleges, the men memorialized through the buildings directly contributed to the institution in a specific and compelling way. Take Saunders Hall at UNC as an example: William Saunders was a graduate of UNC, a member of the college’s Board of Trustees, a secretary of state for North Carolina, and a prolific historian. Indeed, when UNC constructed Saunders Hall in 1922, it even explicitly stated its desire to recognize Saunders’s work aggregating historical documents. There’s absolutely no evidence to indicate that UNC built Saunders Hall to intimidate black people or commemorate racism.
Yet students at these schools have chosen to ignore these realities and instead assert their personal perceptions of the buildings’ meanings as truth. Saunders may have made significant contributions to UNC and the state of North Carolina, but since he was a racist, the building named for him must be taken as a testament to white supremacy. Similarly, it doesn’t matter that Benjamin Tillman was instrumental in the founding of Clemson University, or that Charles Aycock was a pioneering advocate for public education in his day. Their racist beliefs automatically negate their lifetime achievements as well as their relevance to the university, and any building bearing their name must necessarily be a monument celebrating their unsavory ideologies.
It’s undoubtedly because of this misguided logic that disgruntled students felt perfectly just in blaming the university for making them feel “disrespected, uncomfortable and unwelcome,” when in reality such feelings were due entirely to the subjective significance they themselves attached to the building’s name.
This is not to say, however, that the antagonism towards African Americans and civil rights promoted by these historical figures should be ignored or forgotten. It’s important and necessary to keep in mind both the good and the bad when examining our histories. But the racial struggles that characterized the years these men lived, as well as their involvement in such conflict, is an unchangeable reality of American history, no matter how troubling.
David Wilkins, Clemson University’s Board Chairman, put it nicely in a statement against the resolution:
Every great institution is built by imperfect craftsmen. Stone by stone they add to the foundation so that over many, many generations, we get a variety of stones. And so it is with Clemson. Some of our historical stones are rough and even unpleasant to look at. But they are ours and denying them as part of our history does not make them any less so.
Should we start defining people only by their thoughts, and completely disregard their actions and accomplishments? Should we investigate the beliefs and behaviors of all celebrated historical figures to make sure they adhere to today’s socio-political standards, and erase them from our social memory when they inevitably fall short? Censoring history for any reason—even if for the noble purpose of inclusion—is both dishonest and dangerous.
A Larger PC Problem
Student movements like these are symptomatic of the political correctness epidemic that’s currently ravaging college campuses across the country. You’ve undoubtedly heard about some of the most egregious cases: the inclusive language campaign embraced by the Universities of Michigan and Maryland, for example, is a $16,000 “educational” program in which students pledge to use inclusive language and are disparaged when they say words that could be offensive, such as “illegal immigrant,” “ghetto,” and “crazy.” In another case, students and faculty at the University of California, Irvine supported a student resolution that banned American flags from certain areas on campus, arguing that the stars and stripes are an intimidating symbol of racism and xenophobia.
While it may be easy to laugh at such absurdity or perhaps dismiss these as the exception rather than the rule, this type of language policing is not isolated and represents a serious threat to First Amendment rights for students across the country. Throughout the past year, I’ve seen my own university, the College of William and Mary, take a sharp turn left to join the ranks of the most liberal universities in monitoring student speech.
A few notable events catalyzed this change. In December, when student groups held a “die-in” at the campus library to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement, students trying to study (quite rationally) complained about the event via social media. Then in January, members of a fraternity and a sorority hosted a social mixer with the theme “Gangsters and Golfers.” The party happened to fall on the same weekend that the college was screening “Dear White People,” a satirical film about racism on college campuses.
Just like that, William and Mary now had a race problem. Students who complained about the die-in disrupting their studies were labeled ignorant bigots, and the organizations that put on the mixer were immediately charged with racism, forced to apologize, and faced with investigations. Something needed to be done to educate these transgressors, the PC police said; we needed to do all we could to make sure no one would ever be offended on campus again.
Indeed, the response from the administration was almost as swift as that of the offended students. Just a couple weeks later, in early February, President Taylor Reveley created a “Race and Race Relations Task Force,” and said in a statement to the college:
The task force will identify issues related to race relations on campus, engage them on their merits, and encourage meaningful conversation among people with different perspectives, so we can learn from one another and ensure we are a university where everyone is welcome and respected.
More specifically, some of the coalition’s duties include assessing the racial climate on campus, recruiting a more diverse faculty, researching better ways to prevent any more transgressions, and creating educational programs for those who violate the campus’s newfound commitment to inclusivity.
But the Task Force wasn’t enough. Later that month, the Student Assembly unanimously passed the One Tribe Resolution, an ambiguously-worded bill that mandates the construction of a Bias Reporting System, in which students can anonymously report others for whatever speech or behavior they feel constitutes bias or discrimination.
Back in 2007, however, the college tried to implement a very similar bias reporting system, which produced unexpected and adverse results. The policy, which also allowed for anonymous reporting, received resistance from not only students concerned about free speech, but also national groups like the American Board of Trustees and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). FIRE reduced its rating of William and Mary from a green light–indicating solid protection of students’ rights–down to a yellow light, and ultimately the administration abandoned the system in 2010.
A Cautionary Tale of a Changing Culture
Although these policies are undoubtedly disturbing, what’s perhaps worse is that many students at William and Mary truly believe the College not only tolerates, but also actively encourages racism and discrimination.
For instance, in an opinion piece titled “William and Mary’s Legacy of Racism Still Stands Strong,” student activist Brittany Harrington argues that individual acts of prejudice are the result of the college’s “refusal to have uncomfortable conversations and take accountability for the unethical actions” made by men several centuries ago. The logic appears to be that because the administration does not apologize each and every day for the more shameful aspects of its history, or because it does not force students to take a course about slavery at William & Mary, or because the campus boasts statues of Thomas Jefferson (a “slave-owning rapist,” as Harrington would have us remember him), the university is being inherently antagonistic and hateful towards marginalized groups while also giving license to students to freely discriminate.
Sentiment like this is shared by many students at universities across the country, and when such ideas proliferate unchecked, campaigns to rename buildings and push “inclusive language” quickly follow. For the Left, censorship–particularly of speech–is the only remedy to these dubious complaints of hurt feelings and offense. And they’ve succeeded in relegating all authority over what speech is acceptable and what’s not, so that universities themselves have little choice but to submit to their demands or else be branded as intolerant, unwelcoming, exclusive, etc.
Of course, it only goes one way. In my own dormitory this year, multiple resident assistants posted boards in the halls that outwardly celebrated same-sex marriage and the LGBT agenda, encouraged students to “check their privilege,” and even suggested ways white people can combat their own inherent racism. But if an RA put up a board that, say, extolled the virtues of traditional marriage, or if a student group organized a campus march and shouted “cop lives matter,” surely such displays would immediately be deemed unacceptable and produce demands for an apology from the parties involved.
American universities have traditionally been known as a marketplace of ideas, where students can freely explore and express their beliefs without fear of persecution. Indeed, the erroneous notion that college students are better off if they don’t encounter distressing or challenging ideas contradicts the very purpose of a university. This outbreak of political correctness represents a legitimate threat to free speech, and if we allow it to continuously infect our national universities, it has the potential to extend beyond the classrooms to further plague American society.