The board of trustees at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill voted Wednesday to end a moratorium on renaming campus buildings and landmarks.
“These actions send a clear message that our community is committed to working to study and learn from our past,” UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said. “We’re going to create a future history in which every member of our campus community knows that they belong.”
The board unanimously voted to enact a 16-year ban in 2015, immediately after voting to rename a building with ties to a known white supremacist. Saunders Hall had been named for William Saunders, a colonel in the Confederate States Army, UNC-Chapel Hill Trustee and leader of the North Carolina Ku Klux Klan.
Following a mounting campaign from student activists in 2015 to name the classroom building for black author Zora Neale Hurston, the board renamed the building Carolina Hall. In that meeting, the board passed a series of resolutions, including one which swiftly put a ban on renaming anything else.
Students and faculty have long called for other building names to be reconsidered. A recent survey by The Daily Tar Heel found that around 30 buildings on campus are named for people with ties to white supremacy.
This year, a petition on campus called for the moratorium to be lifted, among other demands. It currently has around 9,000 signatures.
On Wednesday, the board of trustees responded.
"Things have changed enough, the temperature of the country has changed enough, it needs to be lifted," said Teresa Artis Neal, the only black member of the UNC-Chapel Hill board of trustees.
Artis Neal is new to the board, but the change of opinion was not only based on new makeup.
Trustee Chuck Duckett voted for the moratorium five years ago, and against it this week.
"I'm a conservative fiscal person. You never know where I'm going to be on social stances," Duckett said. "I think that's part of being educated and changing your mind and talking to good people that can convince you possibly that maybe your stance is wrong."
Duckett said he's received emails urging the board not to try to "change history."
"That's not what this is about," Duckett said. "It's about being a great institution and it's about doing the right thing."
Trustee Gene Davis invoked Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s statement that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
“There are moments as it bends when there are huge leaps forwards towards justice and this is, in my view, as a nation and as a world one of the moments, and we need as a university to lead on it,” Davis said.
Davis and several other members noted that the university has not yet completed work on another resolution from that 2015 meeting. That resolution charged officials with curating the school's past, raising new historical markers and possibly developing a permanent museum to contextualize UNC-Chapel Hill’s history.
Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz appointed a new Commission on History, Race and a Way Forward in February tasked with this work. He told the board that members of that commission have urged for an end to the moratorium as a means to completing their mission, and implementing that resolution.
Trustees Kelly Hopkins and Gene Davis moved to reinforce that resolution, but later withdrew their amendments when Chair Richard Stevens called for immediate action on the moratorium.
“I really believe we need to be clear and concise and simply remove the moratorium,” Stevens said.
Trustee Allie Ray McCullen asked for the meeting to be delayed and held in person, rather than by video conference, despite the coronavirus pandemic.
“If we jump off and change things every time we hear a rumor that the students may demonstrate, we're gonna let the prisoners run the prison,” McCullen said.
McCullen later apologized for that statement. He and Trustee John Preyer voted against the motion to end the moratorium, which passed 11-to-2.
Stevens called the vote a first step. He said the board of trustees will draft a process for removing honorary names on campus, but did not name any specific buildings that might be candidates for being renamed.
Stevens said he expects the board to take further action on this issue by its July meeting.