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.
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.