- TCL Project team
Denaming and De-shaming?
The TCL project has from its inception sought to draw on the experiences and best practices emerging from international peer universities engaged in similar investigations of their colonial or slavery connected pasts. Especially influential on our thinking has been the pioneering work at Glasgow, Dalhousie, Brown, and Harvard, all of which have faced similar issues to those we face at Trinity as we reckon with our past. In considering the best approach to take regarding Berkeley’s material legacies at TCD we have been especially influenced by the Harvard approach to what they call de-naming. (1) They deliberately use the term de-naming to designate the category of name change where ‘a possible change is related to the perception that a namesake’s actions or beliefs were “abhorrent” in the context of current values’, something we think fits well with the Trinity situation, although we would add that slavery was always abhorrent to the enslaved and to many others in contemporary society. Other universities that have taken this approach include the University of Oregon, the University of Cape Town, and the University of Minnesota, to name but a few. (2) Methodologies have been various, but the UCT put together a task force that elicited a total of 323 submissions in relation to a shortlist of buildings on their Cape Town campus, but then went through an additional process in 2020-2021 to rename several more. (3) The warning from Harvard University that we must examine those names previous generations have commemorated with humility and with a rigorous scholarly approach that avoids either hagiography or condemnation is also instructive for our purposes. As part of the Harvard process key principles were adopted to guide any de-naming processes. We have modified these principles to allow them to be adapted to TCD.
A case for removal will be strongest when a committee acting in accordance with the principles described below concludes that the name creates a harmful environment that undermines the ability of current students, faculty, or staff to participate fully in the work of the University.
TCD is an institution devoted to research and to rigorous intellectual inquiry. These are commitments that should guide the evaluation of any name being considered for removal.
A decision to de-name should be based on the strength and clarity of the historical evidence, including an understanding of why our forebears originally selected the name.
The case for removing an individual’s name will be strongest when the behaviours that are now more widely accepted as morally repugnant are a significant component of that individual’s legacy when viewed in the full context of the namesake’s life.
The case for de-naming is stronger if the namesake’s actions or beliefs we now regard as abhorrent would have been regarded as objectionable in the namesake’s own time.
The possibility of retaining a name and contextualizing it as a symbol of the complexity of TCD’s past should always be part of a consideration of de-naming. A proposal for De-naming, whether successful or not, will likely result in an enhancement of historical understanding of the named individual’s life and the original reasons for the selection of the particular name.
It is the belief of the TCL project that, based on the available evidence, the Berkeley Library meets the criteria set out in these guiding principles. It should be further noted that in developing a schema for de-naming Harvard likewise distinguished between public and private commemorative practices. In the case of Berkeley: the Library, medals, and dormant lectureship would fit the former category, with the chapel window forming part of both the public and private commemorative landscape of College. The TCL team will not make this decision, but we provide this contextual information to help inform debates in Trinity about whether the community should de-name this, or any other monument.
1. We are especially grateful to one of the members of our advisory board Vincent Brown, Charles Warren Professor of American History, Harvard University, for sharing the Harvard de-naming document with us.
2. Dennis, Matthew, and Samuel Reis-Dennis. "“What's in a name?”: The University of Oregon, De-Naming Controversies, and the Ethics of Public Memory." Oregon Historical Quarterly 120, no. 2 (2019): 176-205; ‘UMN could replace names on over 30 buildings,’ Twin Cities, 31 December 2021. For a summary of initiatives in the USA since about 2001 see Leslie M Harris, ‘Higher Education’s Reckoning with Slavery’, Academe (Winter, 2020).