UNC-CH Professors Want To End A Ban On Renaming Buildings With Racist Ties

Feb 3, 2020

Credit Brian Batista / For WUNC

A group of UNC-Chapel Hill faculty are asking the UNC Board of Trustees to reconsider its ban on naming campus landmarks, in an effort to allow the renaming of buildings that honor people with racist ties.

Six professors brought a petition they had signed to Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz on Monday, asking him to put the issue on the Board of Trustees' March meeting agenda.

In 2015, under pressure from students, the Board of Trustees renamed a building that had honored a former UNC-Chapel Hill trustee with ties to the KKK. Saunders Hall was named for William Saunders, who served in the Confederate Army and was a leader of the North Carolina KKK. 

Student activists pushed to name the building for African American writer Zora Neale Hurston, who is rumored to have attended a class held in the home of a UNC-Chapel Hill professor before black students were formally admitted to the university.

At the same meeting when the Board of Trustees renamed the building Carolina Hall, the board also put in place a 16-year moratorium on renaming other campus buildings, monuments and landscapes. That ban stands until 2031.

The petition calls to end that freeze, although it does not seek the renaming of any specific buildings or landmarks, said UNC law professor Eric Muller, who helped write the petition.

"It's really to open up the process, so that there can be deliberation on the question of whether any buildings need to be renamed, and if so, which ones they should be," Muller said. "That should be able to happen without having to sit and watch a clock tick for 11 years."

Muller points to Ruffin Hall as just one of a number of buildings on campus "that bear troubling names." The residence hall is named for Thomas Ruffin, a slaveowner and justice on the North Carolina Supreme Court who authored a decision that protected a slaveowner's authority to punish their slaves with life-threatening violence.

Muller said he hopes the new university Commission on History, Race and a Way Forward formed by Guskiewicz will have the power to recommend renaming any building. The commission will hold its first meeting later this week.

"It should be able to look at things fresh and make recommendations free of these arbitrary, artificial, long constraints," Muller said.

The UNC Board of Trustees ultimately must approve any changes to building names. Membership on the Board of Trustees has changed since the 2015 decision to place the moratorium. Two-thirds of the current trustees were not involved in the decision to enact a freeze on namings.

The faculty who started the petition are now asking others to sign online.

A UNC-Chapel Hill spokesperson confirmed that Chancellor Guskiewicz received the petition and has shared it with the Board of Trustees. Guskiewicz is expected to respond to the petitioners directly about his decision to place their request on the Board of Trustees' agenda.

Chancellor Guskiewicz also sent a campus-wide message Monday detailing the Commission's charge and highlighting a new fund to support its work.

In a statement shared by UNC-CH communications staff, Board of Trustees Chair Richard Stevens said the board "is prepared to carefully consider recommendations the Commission on History, Race and a Way Forward makes.”