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Renaming buildings: One step toward a more inclusive campus

Editorial/Opinion by

Recently, McGill struck the Working Group on Principles of Commemoration and Renaming. The group will develop guidelines to consider whether McGill should rename campus buildings that honour historical figures whose legacies no longer seem worth commemorating. As with any debate on how to best memorialize the past, the Task Force raises the question of whether to judge historical figures by today’s standards, and whether it is possible to recognize someone for one aspect of their legacy, while ignoring its darker components.

A group of black students at Princeton University made their positions on these questions clear, when they called on the university administration to change the name of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 2016. Wilson, former president of the United States and leader in the creation of the League of Nations, was also a racist and a segregationist. In refusing to change the name of the school, Princeton took the stance that it is possible to recognize a historical figure’s achievements while still reflecting on their flaws and wrongdoings.

It is crucial to recognize the reprehensible episodes from a community’s past, in order to learn from and to never repeat atrocities. However, oppressive historical figures no longer deserve to be held on a pedestal. Renaming buildings is an opportunity to—at least symbolically—recognize and confront inequality in the past, and the present. It also creates space for the celebration of new figures that better represent the McGill community’s values. Remembering the past matters, but so does honouring those individuals that we can take pride in today and in the future.

Stephen Leacock—former McGill professor and namesake of the Leacock Building—was a misogynist, and vocally opposed women’s suffrage. McGill’s own founder, James McGill, was a slave owner. While we cannot change the fact that these people played positive roles in shaping McGill, it is essential to acknowledge and affirm the standards of inclusivity and tolerance that we want reflected in McGill’s campus today.

Changing the name of the Leacock building or the Le James bookstore incurs little substantive loss in pragmatic terms, but has the potential for large symbolic gain. Renaming such buildings would spark important historical reflection and dialogue surrounding McGill’s past, and the people that were part of it. The building could be re-christened with the name of someone who better reflects McGill students on campus today, and whose legacy serves to promote equality rather than impede it.

Renaming buildings is an opportunity to—at least symbolically—recognize and confront inequality in the past, and the present.

Trailblazing women, people of colour, and other minorities and their accomplishments have long been overlooked and ignored in the past, due to oppressive social structures that silenced their identities and actively discriminated against them. This cannot be fixed, and should never be forgotten, but changing a building name does not in itself erase history. Instead, it can serve to celebrate those who were not historically recognized, or those who have contributed exceptionally to the university’s more recent past. It is crucial that the institution—and the role models it publicly recognizes—are representative and inclusive of the whole student population.

That said, symbolic change cannot be mistaken for substantive change. While changing the name of the building creates the appearance of greater tolerance and sensitivity, tangible progress toward making campus a more inclusive space for all students means matching that symbolic commitment with concrete action. McGill has a ways to go when it comes to inclusivity and representation on campus, and achieving equality clearly requires more than renaming buildings. However, critically reflecting on the names that McGill places on pedestals—and choosing to commemorate those that more accurately represent our community’s values—is a welcome start.

By the same logic, as a part of its mandate, the Working Group must seriously consider whether it is time to discuss renaming our university entirely. Clearly, changing McGill’s name would incur many financial and practical costs beyond the straightforward act of replacing the plaque on the Leacock Building. Nevertheless, it is a conversation that needs to be had. Even if the possibility of renaming is put to bed, it is important to reflect on the legacy of our founder holistically. James McGill created an institution that, today, provides students from a range of countries with incredible educational opportunities. The University’s reputation is now based on the McGill community’s academic achievements, rather than those of its founder. But, he also participated in the enslavement of black and Indigenous people, and must be remembered for all aspects of his character.

The name “McGill” has come to represent much more than its founder, to millions of people. McGill is a community that purports to welcome a diverse group of students and perspectives. It is known internationally for its academic leadership. This is not thanks to James McGill, but rather to the students and faculty that now study and work here. McGill should do justice to its community by ensuring that the institution’s structures promote a progressive and inclusive vision for the future.

 

  • Peter Mendez

    Idiot. So you want the university’s Working Group to “seriously consider whether it is time to discuss renaming our university entirely” even if “changing McGill’s name would incur many financial and practical costs” ?

    Go tell that to the Marines. It is like saying “let us replace the Jesus Christ statues in Christian churches with someone more inclusive, more gender-neutral, more representative of religious diversity, and definitely verifiable from a scientific standard.” Sere if anyone will bother to listen.

    • Saint Emerance

      A) James McGill is really, really, not Jesus. Like, super extra really very extremely un-Jesus.
      B) “Nevertheless, it is a conversation that needs to be had. Even if the
      possibility of renaming is put to bed, it is important to reflect on the
      legacy of our founder holistically.” Generally speaking, when someone puts sentences together in a paragraph, they are intended to work together to convey meaning. Taking things out of context can, in certain circumstances, be functionally indistinguishable from lying.

      • Peter Mendez

        A) Jesus is really, really not James McGill. At least McGill did not conceal his love life and marriage.

        B) We can engage in hyperbole and hyperbolic discussions for as much as we want. The Workshop will not entertain discussions or suggestions to change the university name for any reason, even just for writers of the McGill Tribune to make a point. Such people who write and devote a paragraph wasting their readers’ time and attention and newspaper space are the ones who end up being jobless after college. In America, they are called “sidewalk philosophers” — useless to everyone in society except their fellow philosophers.

        • Scribe

          Jesus’s story is just that… A story written by followers hundreds of years later. What you choose to believe is your business.

          • Scribe

            His name wasn’t even Jesus but rather Joshua and he was a religious Jew… Again you want to continue putting forward a lie?

          • Scribe

            So in fact HE did not conceal anything… he was too busy living his life

          • Peter Mendez

            1. Point is: You are wasting your time on Jesus just like the McGill Tribune is wasting their time imagining that it is just as good to talk about changing James McGill’s university name. Like I said it is useless, sidewalk philosophy that no one bothers to mind other than sidewalk philosophers themselves.

            2. I will tell you that you are the one lying by renaming Jesus as Joshua as much as you call the immortalized name “Jesus Christ” a lie. In that case, I might as well tell you that you are a total idiot, too, because his real name is not Joshua but Jeremiah and he was not a religious jew but a religious ARAB. The beauty of religion is that it is just theology, not science. We cannot prove anything empirically. Sidewalk philosophy at its best. You can believe your Joshua the jew and I will believe my ARABIC Jeremiah.

          • Saint Emerance

            Hey Scribe – I’ve read some of the books this guy has apparently read. They lead to some pretty disturbing places: he apparently bought what they were trying to sell – you might want to disengage.

          • Peter Mendez

            Hey, Scribe — This Saint Emerance is lying big time, pretending that he even knows me or reads what I read. This is not even my real name (just like he calls himself a Saint) and I do not have any online links to anything that is why he cannot prove anything that he says I read. Pure bluffer this saintly idiot is.

          • Saint Emerance

            Well, the whole secret family of Jesus, combined with the claims about his “true” ethnicity are consistent with someone who’s read particular books. You are correct though: I have no evidence you’ve ever read anything.

          • Peter Mendez

            You can twist what “apparently” means, etc. and engage in semantics for as long as you wish. It doesn’t change your intent or motivation in engaging Scribe.

            Nor does it change my point which is not about Jesus Christ or religion, but about the McGill Tribune article re: thinking of and raising the “change-McGill’s name” issue. It is a waste of time that even a first-grader knows will amount to nothing, not even the attention of the Working Committee. That is why I said, in reply to Scribe’s original posting, that it is just like wasting time on Jesus Christ’s true name, ethnicity, sex life, etc. No one can prove or disprove them because there is no science to it. To do so is worthless endeavor like thinking that changing McGill’s name is might amount to some worthy philosophical exercise.

          • Saint Emerance

            Ha! Excellent bluster. If you can find a reputable dictionary that meaningfully contradicts the meaning of apparently as I am using the word, have at it friend. Until then, you’ll just have to reconcile yourself to being wrong.
            I have no doubt that the Working Group will examine how McGill’s name is used on campus, and would bet a large sum of money on them doing so. I am equally certain they will not change the University’s name, but I’ve no doubt they will recommend changes in how he and his image are used on campus. I’d bet money on it. This seems to have you worked up to a pitch of aggravation completely out of scale with how little merit you believe the Tribune’s case to have, and the seriousness with which you claim they deserve to be taken. It’s very entertaining to watch.

          • Peter Mendez

            This is not a question about what definition “apparently” has in the dictionary. It is a question of how the term can be twisted by sick people to accuse someone without any basis while covering their ass in doing so. It is like “it seems to me”. I can say “It seems to me/apparently he is doing well school” (even if I am not sure, just to play it safe and make the listener happy). Or I can say “From how he smiles at women, it seems to me/apparently Joe really raped his child” (even if I have no basis at all for saying that, just to attribute something negative or malicious about a person without getting into any legal troubles). See the difference?!

            And do not change the topic. We are not talking here about “how he (James McGill) and his image are used on campus.” We are talking here of only one single point made by the Tribune: Changing McGill’s name, or at least bringing that to the attention of the administration and powers-that-be.

            Anyone, even students can propose changes on how to imagine or rate or think of McGill. Just like students call the Student Union “Shatner Hall.” But no one buys that outside of a few students’ imagination. It is never called that by McGill. And that is what counts. And here is my revelation: I know McGill will not change its name, and neither will it even CONSIDER or discuss changing its name, because I have sat in the Board of Governors for way over 7 years now. And that had come up at least once before, and one governor simply said “Balderdash”. And that was the end of it.

            End of discussion.

          • Saint Emerance

            Right, so what I said I meant by the word, and what the word means, is less important than what you would prefer to believe about my motivations. Sure! Go ahead. Believe what you need to, friend. I already agreed that I have no evidence you’ve ever read a book. You have the option of staying angry, and no one caring, or moving on.

            “We are talking here of only one single point made by the Tribune:
            Changing McGill’s name, or at least bringing that to the attention of
            the administration and powers-that-be.”

            No, YOU are talking only about that point. I rejected your premise, which is how this conversation started. And now we’re back to where we started, with you taking one sentence out of a paragraph as if the context in which it appeared doesn’t matter. Once more:

            “Nevertheless, it is a conversation that needs to be had. Even if the possibility of renaming is put to bed, it is important to reflect on the legacy of our founder holistically.”

            That conversation is going to happen. It is, to a degree, already happening. The ramifications of changing or not changing the name will be discussed. The Tribune has conceded the likelihood of the university’s name not changing as a result of those discussions, as have I, but they and I both believe that there is value in examining how McGill’s legacy is dealt with on campus, and I believe at least some policy proposals will come from the discussion. You don’t: fine. That doesn’t matter, because it’s happening anyway. Cheerio!

          • Peter Mendez

            Look, just read the Tribune again so that you know.

            Tribune said “By the same logic, as a part of its mandate, the Working Group MUST SERIOUSLY CONSIDER whether it is time to discuss renaming our university entirely” (emphasis I supplied to debunk your claim that I am talking of one point. That is my only bone of contention if you read this string all over again).

            I SAID THAT McGILL will never consider a change of name. Period. It does not matter to me if the students or the janitors there want to reconsider James McGill’s legacy, image, statue/s, etc. Point is MCGILL WILL NOT CONSIDER AND EVEN SERIOUSLY CONSIDER A NAME CHANGE. Change the founder’s gender if you want but renaming it will never enter our discussions in the Board of Governors. And that is what matters, got it?

          • Saint Emerance

            Am I to read the all-caps as spittle, or frothing? Hard to tell.; either way, stay hydrated friend, I’m worried about you.
            Anyway, I know what I know, so I don’t particularly care what you have to say about the topic. You want to harp on an increasingly narrowly-defined, decontextualized objection to this article: Go ahead. I hope you get a deep and lasting satisfaction from doing so, and that one day you will look back on the very important fight you waged here with pride.
            That said, I do not want to leave you with the impression that I have the slightest belief that you have or ever had an official role on the BoG. I do not. That said, I concede that you could very easily prove me wrong on that, and I would welcome it.

          • Peter Mendez

            You can read the all-caps any way you want to read them, since you do not “apparently” do not “seem” to know how to read anyway. So stay hydrated as you read the all-caps.

            And please do not tell me that you did not mean harm with your “apparently” and then follow it up with some proof as in: “I already agreed that I have no evidence you’ve ever read a book.” Yes, you only backtracked because I wrote back to floor it down. Otherwise, you would not have bothered to do so.

            And “apparently” you like to go by impression, so it is fine with me if you “apparently” do not have the slightest belief concerning my membership in the ruling body of McGill University. It is again just like that Jesus Christ illustration. Neither you nor I can prove it. In the same way that I do not want to leave you with the slightest impression that I think you might know how “apparently” is used in the English language. I do not.

            It won’t take long, perhaps in less than a year, when I write you back to tell you — complete with the proper new citation — that McGill BoG did not even consider the name change of the university in any way, other than to shout it down as pure balderdash.

          • Saint Emerance

            You are very convincing, Mr Member of the Ruling Body of McGill University. In my experience, that is *exactly* how BoG members refer to themselves. I look forward to your day of triumph, and I wil snivel appropriately when it arrives. See you then, buddy!

          • Peter Mendez

            Look, this is not a show of force. I do not look forward to any day of triumph or reckoning because there is no fight between you/anyone else and me and/or the board. All I am saying is that the Tribune writer should have been more parsimonious and sophisticated, and excluded any reference to possibly changing McGill’s name, and whatever value its discussion might generate. It will never happen based on my experience of 7+ years there, and ii is a total waste of newspaper ink. I make no judgment as to whether that is good or bad, right or wrong, but it is not going to happen.

            Obviously, typo error with “Workshop” which I referred to correctly as Working Group in most of my posts. Anyway, same thing: As I said in the beginning, that WG will not consider a change in McGill’s name as part of their recommendation to the provost knowing that it is simply ridiculous and a waste of time and effort to include “balderdash” there. And whatever the WG or provost does will go up to us for final decision. That was the other half of my inevitable forecast.

          • Saint Emerance

            Wrong.

          • Peter Mendez

            You can say and think whatever you wish. I stand by what I told you before: Based on my experience, neither the Working Group nor the BoG (or any committee thereof) will not consider or recommend changing McGill University’s name. And when that time comes, I will write you again to tell you how wrong you are in assuming otherwise, no matter how many position papers there will be forthcoming. I assure you that there will be no official recommendation coming from either the WG or the BoG to change the university name. I can bet my bottom dollar on that, regardless of the number of governors, administrators, students, janitors, street vendors, and homeless people you wish to forward this thread to. Be my guest.

          • Saint Emerance

            “I assure you that there will be no official recommendation coming from either the WG or the BoG to change the university name.”
            I already acknowledged that. The Tribune already acknowledged that. The only reason there’s any dispute here is because you adamantly refuse to understand how paragraphs work.

            Here’s what’s going to happen: The working group will consider the feasibility of changing the name, pretty much as a pro forma exercise. The BoG will not, because the BoG has nothing to do with this process, and I genuinely don’t understand how someone can pretend to sit on the BoG and not bother to put in the effort to understand that. The working group will doubtless reject it, and then discuss what that means for how his legacy will be dealt with on campus going forward. Pretty much exactly what the the Tribune has described as their desired outcome, and how it has gone at the institutions that McGill is explicitly citing as their model.

            As I said, the admin is already preparing for this, and even if I did not know that directly, it would be easy to discern because of the modus operandi of the working groups that have preceded it, and of the nature of academics and academia.

            To further explain to you the process that you obviously do not understand: in all likelihood the Provost will, within a month or so of receiving the report, release it to the community, probably with a presentation to the university senate. Senate, in turn, will form its own committee to devise policies that will then be debated and voted upon. It is possible that some renaming initiative of a building or similar initiative might eventually go to the BoG in a year or so, but a) no one thinks it will be of the university as a whole and b) the BoG will be entirely irrelevant to the discussion until that point, as it has been throughout this exchange, other than a a source of deep amusement to me.

            In any case, I am sure that there are more student initiatives that a BoG member should be calling idiotic, in the Tribune or elsewhere. You should go do so somewhere where your voice will matter, like in a BoG meeting, or perhaps submit something to the Working Group itself! I’m sure your thoughtful, detail-focused and process-oriented opinions will be welcome.

          • Peter Mendez

            You are imagining that “The Tribune already acknowledged that.” It did not. In fact, it insisted that there is some worth to raising the issue just the same even if it is costly. Then you pretend that you understand “how paragraphs work.” You don’t. You only claim to do so because you want to twist and bend the written word (from the Tribune) to offer an excuse by saying “Oh they really know it is stupid to talk about name change. They are just advancing it philosophically.” That is why I said that is useless, sidewalk philosophy, waste of ink.

            And like I said, we rule. Whatever the WG does, especially with name-change, we decide and only we can decide, not the provost, principal, etc. That said, I know you are again wrong in saying that “The working group will consider the feasibility of changing the name, pretty much as a pro forma exercise.” Pro forma or not, it will not show up in the WG official recommendations so it is worthless talking about how the process works because I do not care.

            All I care about is that 1) we will not even entertain anything about it if ever it comes before us for decision; and 2) #1 will not even have to take place at all because, as I predict, the WG will not include it in its recommendations. Now, if you want protesters and other idiots to raise the name-change before the WG, let them do so. I do not care. All I care about is my prediction that there will be no WG recommendation at all. Period.

          • Saint Emerance

            I admire your passion.

        • Saint Emerance

          a) Yes, that’s exactly the main difference between the two of them. Unless, of course, it wasn’t: “Country wives” were very common for fur traders in McGill’s time, very easy to keep off the record and he not the sort of guy off of whom an ambitious pseudo-historians could build a writing career.
          b) I would be absolutely shocked in the workshop did not address the question. You apparently have access to secret and arcane truths from which more credulous souls such as myself are closed. I envy your certainty, and self-esteem!

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