WKU will not pursue the removal of names from university buildings or academic colleges

WKU to not pursue the removal of names from University Buildings or academic colleges
Published: Jul. 21, 2021 at 2:59 PM CDT
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BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (WBKO) - On Wednesday, Western Kentucky University President Timothy Caboni responded to recommendations made by the University’s namings and symbols task force.

In August 2020, with national calls for racial equality amid civil unrest after the death of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, Western Kentucky University announced considerations regarding name changes to buildings and colleges named after men who were slave owners.

The final report made 26 recommendations, with 11 to be evaluated and integrated into WKU’s institutional plans and 15 recommendations related to honorific names and symbols on campus, 12 of which that will be pursued and three that will not. The three that will not be pursued are related to the removal of names from university buildings or academic colleges.

The president’s response can be read below:

Dear WKU Community:

As part of our work to promote fairness, justice, and equity across our campus, last year I charged a group of faculty, staff, and students to examine the names and symbols we use as a university to ensure we honor our past while also being sensitive to our present and future.

I received the report of the WKU Namings and Symbols Task Force, met with the group last week, and want to express my appreciation for their diligent work during the past 10 months. I know the conversations were difficult; the issues were challenging, and the responsibilities were heavy. The final report makes 26 recommendations for consideration.

The Task Force’s thoughtful work went above and beyond the initial charge and produced 11 recommendations related to academic administration, compensation, student and academic recruitment, human resource management, and curriculum. I will ask our University Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee, in collaboration with the President’s Cabinet and campus leaders, to evaluate and consider the integration of those 11 recommendations into our institutional plans.

The remaining 15 recommendations are directly related to honorific names and symbols on our campus. Before I detail the 12 recommendations we will pursue, I first want to address the three that we will not.

Removal of Names

After much consideration and reflection, I am not prepared to recommend to the Board of Regents the removal of any names from university buildings or academic colleges.

The topic of removing names from buildings and colleges generated the most public interest and comment since I announced the Task Force at Faculty and Staff Convocation last year. The removal of honorific names has been the most polarizing and divisive of considerations. Even the Task Force could not reach unanimity in support of its three recommendations to remove the names Robert Ogden, Pleasant J. Potter, and Charles Vanmeter. The same schism appears in the comments solicited from our community, alumni, and friends. However, as an institution of higher learning, we have an obligation to engage in these challenging conversations and to educate our community about the role slavery played in the history of both our nation and in the lives of early university supporters. Education involves telling stories and allowing some parts to be omitted results in an incomplete and disingenuous story.

The scourge of slavery on our nation is an ugly chapter – our nation’s original sin – and we continue to grapple with its legacy. The institution of slavery was reprehensible. In many ways, Robert Ogden, Pleasant J. Potter, and Charles Vanmeter illustrate the ongoing conflict with which America has wrestled for more than two centuries: a nation founded on the principles of liberty and justice for all, even though many of its citizens remained enslaved long after its establishment.

While we fervently disagree with their views on slavery, we also acknowledge that their perspectives were not unlike many of their time. We should exercise caution when judging those in the past using a modern lens. The decisions we make today also will meet with the scrutiny of future generations. We hope our choices will be evaluated with the same humility and the understanding that after decades or longer of history, views and perspectives necessarily will change.

Additionally, I have a fiduciary responsibility to the university and cannot accept any recommendations that would cause us immediate and lasting financial harm. Nor can I put at risk any agreements that are in the long-term best interest of the institution.

Make no mistake: the views of these three individuals from more than a century ago are inconsistent with our university’s values. However, we recognize that their contributions, particularly those of Ogden, have made a better life possible for individuals of all ethnicities and backgrounds. Yes, these names are reminders of their namesakes; but they are now also associated with well-known traditions of excellence in the liberal arts and social and physical sciences. Potter College and Ogden College have developed international reputations for academic excellence, and Van Meter Hall is recognized as one of the premier performing arts venues in the region.

New Naming Opportunities:

As we move forward, we can and will create new named spaces and new symbols that represent the highest aspirations for our university. Some of these will take longer to identify and implement (e.g. an appropriate recognition of the Jonesville Community). However, we also have opportunities immediately before us.

I am pleased to announce that at their next regular meeting, I will recommend to the Board of Regents the renaming of Northeast Hall to Munday Hall in honor of Margaret Munday (’60), the first African-American student to attend WKU, who graduated with a degree in music in 1960. Munday is a 2012 inductee into WKU’s Hall of Distinguished Alumni and was a trailblazer on our campus. Munday Hall will be the first building named after an African American on WKU’s campus.

Task Force Recommendations:

In addition to accepting the Task Force’s recommendation to retain the name for Kelly Thompson Hall and provide context, we will also begin to immediately implement the 11 additional recommendations below:

1. Update the Philanthropic and Honorific Naming Policy and Protocols: To ensure we appropriately evaluate and consider long-term implications of new names added to university buildings, we will update the university’s Philanthropic and Honorific Naming Policy and Protocols to add a more formal evaluation process for those whose names will be affixed to university buildings going forward.

2. Establish a Jonesville Reconciliation Working Group: We will establish a working group to appropriately address the issues that remain from the dismantling of the Jonesville neighborhood.

3. Add honorific naming of spaces on campus after Jonesville: The university will identify an appropriate and symbolic location on campus to recognize the importance of the Jonesville neighborhood area in the footprint of the campus. We also will work to recognize those who were displaced and those who trace their lineage to Jonesville.

4. Host an annual reunion/conference for Jonesville residents/descendants and the WKU community: As part of their work, I will ask the Jonesville Reconciliation Working Group to organize an annual gathering to bring together residents and descendants of those who lived in the neighborhood with members of the WKU and Bowling Green Communities.

5. Increase financial support for the Cynthia & George Nichols III Intercultural Student Engagement Center (ISEC): Last year, WKU added $200K to the budget of ISEC. The results produced related to the retention and graduation of our students are worthy of additional investment, which we will continue to grow annually. Additionally, I will charge our division of Philanthropy and Alumni Engagement with identifying and securing more private support specifically for ISEC.

6. Recruit African-American-owned businesses to develop feeder programs: This year we will create a program to increase minority-owned business participation in university RFP processes. We will continue this work and enhance our efforts to target local businesses that would benefit from doing business with WKU and educate them about the processes of being considered.

7. Ensure Admissions Office maintains a bi-lingual staff: The recruitment of students from diverse backgrounds is a key focus of the Office of Admissions. We will maintain that commitment in the coming years as we continue to expand our recruiting efforts regionally and nationally.

8. Add minority-owned restaurants on campus that serve culturally diverse food options: As part of the renovation and creation of The Commons at Helm Library, the university in partnership with Aramark has developed spaces for locally-owned restaurants to create meals for the community. We will redouble those efforts with an eye toward even more diverse options. We also will work to incubate new concepts that might spin off into full-fledged local eateries in the Bowling Green community.

9. Join the National Studying Slavery Consortium: WKU will join the Universities Studying Slavery Consortium, created and led by the University of Virginia. The group is a multi-institutional collaboration focused on sharing best practices and guiding principles about truth-telling projects addressing human bondage and racism in institutional histories.

10. Change the names of the bus lines to no longer be associated with colors: I have directed WKU Parking and Transportation Services to begin redesigning and relabeling our transit system to use labels that are not associated with colors.

11. Solicit the Ogden College Foundation: The Ogden Foundation has a long history of supporting WKU financially with scholarships, faculty support, and through a long-term lease of foundation property on which seven of our science buildings are located. We will engage them to determine their interest in being involved with implementing these and other Task Force recommendations.

Final Thoughts

I am proud of the interest and feedback this matter has received. It demonstrates our common desire to share a more accurate, thorough, and encompassing telling of the WKU story.

As universities and communities across our nation examine these issues, we see that no course charted from this exercise will be popular with all constituencies, or perhaps even a majority of them. Despite the difficulty of the conversations and discomfort caused by the processes, we have an obligation as an institution of higher education to engage in challenging conversations, and I’m proud of the way in which our campus community has approached this examination with thoughtfulness and sensitivity.

Once again, I would like to offer my deep appreciation to the members of the WKU Namings and Symbols Task Force and to all who provided feedback to us as we continue our institutional work toward ensuring every person on our campus and in our community sees us as a place of inclusion and belonging.

Timothy C. Caboni

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