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What's in a name?

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MARCH 31, 2016

The names of UC Berkeley’s buildings are so ingrained in the campus’s vocabulary that they seem at times to take on a meaning of their own. Dwinelle, Sproul, Wheeler and other monuments mark not only geographical locations on campus, but serve as forums for countless student experiences. But behind each name on campus lies a story of the university’s past. Noticed or not, the titles that adorn UC Berkeley’s great infrastructure tell a tale of our campus’s history and growth — and this tale is not as neat as the campus’s facade suggests. Barrows Hall is a glaring example of this truth.

Barrows Hall is named for David Prescott Barrows, a former UC president who espoused colonialist and racist sentiments. The building, home to the campus’s ethnic studies and African American studies programs, among others, has recently become a focal point of debate as activists from the Black Student Union and Filipino community urge the campus to rename it.

“You have all of these different studies of people of color and then you have this anthropologist who wrote about Black and Brown people as less than human,” said Anthony Williams, a Black student who partnered with Filipino-American student Bradley Afroilan to create an art piece in protest of the building name. “I study in Barrows Hall. To be in a building named after this person … says something about who we honor on campus.”

Allowing Barrows Hall a new title is not simply an issue of semantics — it would be a positive step for our campus climate and for fostering an inclusive academic environment at UC Berkeley. Renaming the building would display a commitment to the initiative to improve campus climate for Black students, which was announced this fall as a necessary step in changing “the widely held perception that UC Berkeley is not a welcoming place for African Americans.

Furthermore, if conducted with care, a new name would indicate that student communities on campus are being heard. Afroilan noted that the renaming of Barrows Hall will require the input of all involved student communities — including the Filipino and Black student populations and also those in the departments that make their home in Barrows.

This month, the campus announced it would be pursuing a “comprehensive assessment” of UC Berkeley’s building names. As the campus engages in this process, it must consider the names it boasts not as accessory to the Berkeley experience, but instead as an integral part of how our community defines itself.

“(This is) not just about Barrows Hall, but something we need to be conscientious about for all the buildings on campus,” said Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion Na’ilah Suad Nasir. “The environment is critically important in terms of the cues it sends. … As with all things that have to do with power, you only really feel it if you’re on the disenfranchised side of it.”

According to Nasir, the campus is organizing a task force that will include faculty representatives and students from various community groups as they reevaluate building names. She said they will aim to report their recommendations to the chancellor’s office by late summer.

As the campus reconsiders the names that represent it, it is important that various student communities are allowed to be more than reactionary voices in the process. The names that adorn UC Berkeley’s buildings must not only reflect its history, but also its growth and capacity for positive change — the students fighting to rename Barrows Hall are as much a part of this campus’s story as Barrows himself.

According to current guidelines, when the campus considers naming a building after an individual who is not a donor, the person in question must meet at least one of three criteria: they have earned high scholarly distinction, rendered significant service to the school or have contributed exceptionally to the university’s welfare. While these standards offer up grand visions of scholastic greats, they also could easily be said to define the student body here. Students and their communities make up the core of UC Berkeley’s character, and for this reason, they must be allowed a significant seat at the table in the campus name game and all its intricacies.

As the campus considers how its infrastructure can support a more positive campus climate, it should also reevaluate how it names new buildings on UC Berkeley’s constantly evolving and expanding campus.

There is a fiscal reality to the naming of many buildings on campus. As is true at most colleges across the country, many of the names of UC Berkeley’s monuments reflect contributions of major donors. These buildings tell as much of a story about the university as those named for individuals that contributed to its history — a narrative of financial need and private funding-based growth that the university has come to rely on in a time of state divestment. But it is critically important that student opinion not be drowned out by this reality and instead that it be allowed a space to engage in a dialogue with it.

If current controversy can teach us anything, it is that decisions made now will quickly become a part of UC Berkeley’s legacy. In renaming Barrows Hall and creating a more inclusive structure for naming buildings in the future, Berkeley will allow its landscape to reflect the students that fill the very buildings being discussed.

Libby Rainey and Alastair Boone write the Thursday column on bits and pieces of the UC Berkeley experience. Contact Libby at [email protected].

MARCH 31, 2016