GROUP THINK is the DP’s round table section, where we throw a question at the columnists and see what answers stick. Read your favorite columnist, or read them all.
This week's question: In light of Yale University changing the name of Calhoun College because of John Calhoun's legacy as a prominent slaveholder, would you want Penn to change the name of a building on campus if the namesake of that building was a person with a problematic (by today's standards) past?
James Fisher | Spilling the Real Tea
If the name of a building is connected with slavery, it would be important for Penn to change the building's name. I think that doing so would be a sign that the University is recognizing its injustices and is willing to pursue some kind of change.
Isabel Kim | It Keeps Happening
Before I answer the question, I have to note that it is particularly vague with regards to what it means by "problematic." It's a word that is used so widely to the point of having no consistent meaning. That being said, there are a lot of things we rightly do not condone in today's society that were perfectly acceptable in the past, and many historical figures that we would think morally suspect had they been living in the present. To judge the past by present standards is always complicated, but I think that if a building at Penn were named after someone known for something "problematic," it wouldn't reflect well on Penn to continue to have the building named after them. Therefore, I would want Penn to change the building's name, so as to not passively uphold a problematic legacy.
Michael Palamountain | Stranger Than Fiction
I applaud the students and faculty at Yale who have demonstrated and protested over this issue. Their success must be the sweetest reward. This success is proof for any progressives that coming together to amend organizations to align or realign with the values of its members is both possible and worth it. The name was protested because of its namesake, John C. Calhoun, who was a slave owner and high-profile defender of the institution of slavery. He was also a Yale alumnus.
Why do we allow buildings to be named in the first place?
The first I consider, is honoring individuals for achievement's sake. There is merit in recognizing historical achievements of an individual and placing these achievements in memoriam. As time goes on, the organization may grow and may realize its values no longer align with the figures they once honored by naming a building after them. In this case, it is certainly reasonable to expect members of that organization, including students and faculty, to take action to rename the building in honor of someone who aligns with their own values, as what occurred at Yale.
There's also the case in which we choose to honor individuals who donated money by naming buildings. This is a common practice at many universities and graduate schools across the country including our own. It is important to also be critical of this second reason for building naming, for when institutions bestow honor in the form of naming buildings after individuals, purely for their financial donations, we reduce accomplishment and legacy to a purely monetary metric. This is a slippery slope.
It is important to recognize that the names that are placed on the buildings that make up our institutions say much about the institutions themselves. In the case of honoring those who donate, that they prioritize the ability to make money. The fact that we are not protesting over these instances says a lot about the priorities of the members of these institutions as well.
Joe Tharakan | Cup O'Joe
Changing the name of a building to more accurately reflect the values of an institution is a perfectly acceptable thing to do. Yale’s decision to rename Calhoun College was long overdue.
Speaking of Penn buildings improperly named, Cohen Hall used to be called Logan Hall for about 100 years. It was named after James Logan, one of the early mayors of Philadelphia, a trustee of the College of Philadelphia, our predecessor institution, and a contemporary and mentor to Ben Franklin. However, it was renamed to Claudia Cohen Hall, after a gossip columnist and the second wife of four of megadonor Ronald Perelman. They divorced after nine years.
Mr. Perelman donated $20,000,000 to put her name on that building, and I’m sure that money has benefitted the University in various ways. Still, it would be nice to honor an important figure in Penn's and Philadelphia's history rather than a tabloid journalist. She certainly hasn’t done anything so despicable as leading the pro-slavery movement, but it would be nice to commemorate James Logan again.
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