UM unveils process for renaming campus buildings

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Six months after a University of Michigan regent offered, then rescinded, a donation to a project that would have led to a controversial change to a campus building, the university has unveiled principles and a process for renaming buildings and spaces on the Ann Arbor campus.

Announced early Monday, it outlines principles the university should consider in changes such as understanding the 200-year-old institution’s past, its context, new interpretations of history, commitment to an individual and due diligence before a change is made.

“The university has a long history of drawing broadly upon the many intellectual resources to consider complex issues from different perspectives, and that’s what our committee set out to do during this review,” said Bentley Historical Library Director Terry McDonald, a professor of history and chair of the President’s Advisory Committee on University History, which made the recommendations.

McDonald added that the committee defined a set of principles — not a checklist — that will guide the committee in evaluating any proposal to reconsider a building name.

“We do not believe that historical questions about the names of buildings or spaces can be answered by means of a checklist,” McDonald wrote in the committee’s final report. “Indeed, given the nature of our institution and its history, such questions bring into play principles that already exist — sometimes in tension — with the university.”

The new policy comes as the university embarks on a yearlong celebration of its bicentennial. UM supporters over the years have questioned names on buildings of people who, in their views, supported slavery or discrimination, or why few women’s names are on UM buildings.

It also comes after UM Regent Mark Bernstein and his wife, Rachel Bendit, last spring offered a $3 million gift for the UM’s new $10 million multicultural center to show their longtime dedication to work of a more inclusive society.

But the gift was removed three months later after the Board of Regents approved renaming the building Bernstein-Bendit Hall and UM students balked that the name would replace the name of William Monroe Trotter, a racial justice activist whose name is on the multicultural facility. It is the only building on campus that is named after an African-American.

The Trotter Center recently became a touchstone of UM African-American students’ decades-long work to increase diversity on the predominantly white campus, especially after Michigan voters in 2006 approved and the U.S. Supreme Court later upheld an initiative which banned the use of affirmative action in higher education admissions.

It emerged in the wake of a 2013 social media campaign, #BBUM, to raise awareness about what it was like to be black at UM and the building’s location on the margin of campus — viewed by some as a metaphor for how they sometimes felt on the margins of UM’s campus, too. The new facility will move to the heart of campus, on State Street, north of the Michigan Union.

At the time of Bernstein’s withdrawal of his gift, he said “it has never been more urgent or imperative than it is right now to show multiculturalism must be broad and inclusive.” But it was unclear how the building’s now-aborted name change occurred.

In a letter outlining several initiatives to mark the university’s 200th anniversary, UM President Mark Schlissel said last spring he tapped the advisory committee, appointed years ago by former President Mary Sue Coleman, to make recommendations for building and space names.

The principles that were unveiled must be within the framework of a 2008 policy adopted by the Regents, who make final approval on changes.

Schlissel said it’s important that UM take a scholarly approach to any review of historical building names and put them into context.

“The new process is fully in keeping with our bicentennial commitment to examine our institution’s past more broadly — and will guide us as we seek to become an even better University of Michigan in our third century and beyond,” Schlissel said.