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Naming names : CCAE Exposé #3

December 2021
Written by: Richard Fisher

The power of names is not trivial. Naming goes back to the very beginnings of the human era when some names were so sacred they could not even be uttered. Names can elevate and redeem, desecrate and dehumanize; they can liberate or imprison.

It is not therefore surprising that in our concentrated academic cultures naming issues have taken on a special significance, not only within campuses but beyond. Names have become a lightning rod for the culture wars that wage all around us. Oxford University has resisted taking down a statue of white imperialist Cecil Rhodes (he of the Rhodes Scholars) by adding a plaque describing him as “a committed colonialist”. One person’s ‘teachable moment’ is another’s grievous insult.

Universities, colleges, and independent schools are at the centre of this debate because naming forms an embedded part of their culture: faculties, schools, buildings, playing fields, sports teams – even scholarships and academic chairs. Any of these can carry monikers which may or may not stand the test of time. What makes educational institutions unique is that they are pincered between the instinct to maintain a long-term institutional perspective on the one hand, and the representations of an increasingly aware community of students and external stakeholders on the other. One thing that is fairly certain is that the institution will be considered by a large part of the community to have ‘got it wrong’, whatever the outcome.

There are many positive aspects to the re-naming process. Numerous Canadian educational institutions have engaged in extensive community consultations about certain names on their campuses or within their structures.  One of the most high-profile recent examples is Ryerson University which has committed to changing the name of the university in time for the academic year 2022-23, and is using the re-naming process to engage the Ryerson community even more deeply.

In response to input from their communities, Queen’s University removed Sir John A. Macdonald’s name and the University of New Brunswick removed George Ludlow’s name – both from their law school buildings.  At McGill the Redmen sports teams became the Redbirds, and St. Lawrence College in Kingston has renamed its Eagle’s Nest Indigenous Centre as the Waasaabiidaasamose Indigenous Centre. In the secondary sector, the Calgary Catholic School District changed the name of the Bishop Grandin High School to Our Lady of the Rockies High School, due to Bishop Grandin’s role as an architect of the residential school system. Part of the impetus for many of these changes is that they were strongly supported by Indigenous students and their communities, and so send a powerful signal of welcome and inclusion.

The implications of these changes for the advancement sector are multi-layered. Alumni will certainly have differing opinions, as they would for almost any issue, because they care about the institution. Donors, many of whom are alumni, have expressed their own individual opinions on naming issues, but neither alumni nor donors are monolithic – they hold views across the spectrum. Advancement offices themselves have stayed for the most part scrupulously independent, recognizing wisely that an already complex process would not benefit from having development issues thrown into the mix.

Despite all the controversies surrounding naming issues, they do present a landmark opportunity for community engagement at all levels. This engagement will never produce unanimity, but it will generate vigorous debate and thoughtful deliberation, which is what universities are all about.

The key takeaway at this point seems to be that deep and authentic community engagement is essential so that people feel heard, whether or not they agree with the final outcome. Either way, we will doubtless be returning to the issues of naming, de-naming and re-naming in the not-too-distant future.


Related resource:

View the companion video for CCAE Exposé #3: featuring Karen Bertrand of Queen’s University and Julie Davis of Trent University