On November 17, 2015, the University of Oregon’s Black Student Task Force sent a list of twelve demands to four top university administrators.
The group asserted that “the historical structural violence and direct incidents of cultural insensitivity and racism” on campus create an environment that prevents black students from succeeding.
In order to create “a healthy and positive campus climate” for black students, the Black Student Task Force said:
“We…DEMAND that you work with us and implement the following list of programs:
- Change the names of all of the KKK related buildings on campus. DEADY Hall will be the first building to be renamed.
- We cannot and should not be subjugated to walk in any buildings that have been named after people that have vehemently worked against the Black plight, and plight of everyone working to achieve an equitable society.
- Allowing buildings to be named after members who support these views is in direct conflict with the university’s goal to keep black students safe on campus.
- We demand this change be implemented by Fall 2016”
University President Michael Schill appointed a committee of administrators, faculty, and students to develop criteria for evaluating whether to strip the names off Deady Hall and Dunn Hall, part of Hamilton residence hall, because of their association with racist actions in Oregon in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Once the criteria were established, Schill assembled a panel of three historians to research the history of Matthew P. Deady and Frederick S. Dunn to guide his decision-making.
The historians recently released an exhaustive, extensively footnoted 34-page report.
The report described the complex lives of both men, lives filled with negatives, positives, ambiguity and contradictions.
Deady, though a territorial legislator, constitutional convention delegate and presiding officer, and U.S. District Judge for thirty-four years, supported slavery.
Dunn, though he graduated from the University of Oregon, spent the vast majority of his career there and enjoyed a national reputation as a classics scholar, was also a prominent member of the Ku Klux Klan and led the Eugene chapter.
Based on the historians’ report, there is no question that both men held views and engaged in activities that would be considered loathsome today.
But that does that mean their names should be summarily erased from history at the University of Oregon.
To surrender to the Black Students Task Force’s demands would be to embrace presentism in all its intellectual weakness, to endorse interpreting historical events without any reference to the context or complexity of the time.
If there’s one thing students should learn in college, it’s that It makes no sense to see the world entirely in the present tense.
In looking at history, it is critical to acknowledge the degree to which our position and experiences color how we look at bygone days, places and people.
Presentism “…encourages a kind of moral complacency and self-congratulation,” said Lynn Hunt, president of the American Historical Association. “Interpreting the past in terms of present concerns usually leads us to find ourselves morally superior…,”
Many of our forbears espoused racial views that are today considered abhorrent, including people we still consider exemplars of the American experience.
In addition, somebody’s historical goodness and worth should not be based on just one criteria.
“…making race the only basis of judgment…does violence to the spirit of historical investigation, because it reduces complex individuals to game show contestants who must simply pass or fail a single test,” says David Greenberg, a professor of history and journalism and media studies at Rutgers University.
In April 2016, Schill and Vice President for Equity and Inclusion Yvette Alex-Assensoh published a letter to the campus community saying, “…we recognize that we can and must do more as an institution to meet the needs of Black students”, but made no commitments on the building renaming issue.
When Schill does make a decision, I earnestly hope he will just say no.