Principles for the Process of Discernment Related to Contested Names

Adopted by the Rhodes College Board of Trustees April 13, 2018

The Rhodes Vision acknowledges our commitment to a lifelong passion for learning, which inherently involves critical self-reflection, a compassion for others – both for those within our learning community and for those outside the college boundaries – and the ability to translate academic study and personal concern into effective leadership and action in their communities and the world. The Rhodes Vision further includes the goal of “attracting and retaining a talented, diverse student body and engaging these students in a challenging, inclusive, and culturally broadening college experience.”

As we determine the principles for the process of discernment related to contested names, we recognize that all institutions are subject to change over time. Rhodes College has intentionally – and with an eye to strengthening the college in its ability to fulfill its educational mission – embraced change. The college, much like a living organism, is ever growing and evolving in order to ensure its continued relevance, vitality, and survival. From the admission of women in 1917, to the move to Memphis in 1925, to the admission of the first African American students in 1964, to the last renaming of the college in 1984, Rhodes has continually striven to uphold its values in an ever-changing global community and will continue to do so. Our discussion of the principles also recognizes the choice the institution made – from its initial founding as the Masonic University of Tennessee in Clarksville – to move to Memphis almost a century ago. The institution renamed itself Southwestern, adding “at Memphis” in 1945, to reflect its placement within this particular city. In fact, over its 169-year history, the college has had seven different names, most recently, of course, Rhodes College. Each name change has responded to the changing environment in which the college pursues its mission of educating young people to be engaged members of their communities. While our liberal arts educational mission and values have not changed, they have evolved as reflected in the names of the college itself.

At Rhodes, the need to articulate principles on contested names is spurred on by our commitment to the Rhodes Vision, Honor Code, and Diversity Statement, and by the fact that, like our campus setting and footprint, our student body has also changed and grown both in its numerical size and in its diversity.

In order to fully evaluate and establish a process for potentially changing a name of a historic campus space or memorial, an ad hoc committee was formed by President Troutt in the spring of 2017 to begin the process of examining contested names on our campus. In the fall of 2017, the Board of Trustees and President Hass established a larger ad hoc committee charged with developing principles for making such a decision. The committee recognized that naming a building and changing the name of a building are not identical actions and should be governed by separate decision-making processes and considerations. The committee identified the following principles as those that are most important to our processes of discernment related to name changes.

The College Vision:

Rhodes College aspires to graduate students with a lifelong passion for learning, a compassion for others, and the ability to translate academic study and personal concern into effective leadership and action in their communities and the world.

Introduction to the Discernment Process:

In this vision, we recognize that every generation has a duty to study and assess the histories of those generations that came before. This duty is most apparent in discerning the ways in which we have been shaped by our past and the role we hope to have in shaping the future. This study of our past, reflection on our present, and aspirations for our future must be undertaken with great humility and respect, as we recognize that all histories are challenging, multivalent, and may make us uncomfortable.

This work must be undertaken with an awareness of our moral responsibility to understand our past, live in our present, and shape our future. These principles recognize that renaming shall only occur in exceptional circumstances, and should be based on a committee process established by the Board of Trustees and President. In every application of these principles, we should act humbly, knowing that we too shall be studied and assessed by those generations that follow.
Principles for the Process of Discernment Related to Contested Names:

  • Principle of Alignment: The principles and processes of discernment related to contested names should align with and be informed by the college’s Vision, Honor Code, and Diversity Statement.
  • Principle of History: History is the past that affects our present and future realities. A primary reason we study history is for a moral purpose: to learn from past behaviors and actions – good and bad – with the hope of adjusting future behaviors to reflect the positive actions and avoid past moral mistakes. History often involves painful recollections of our past, but we are shaped and influenced by that history and must allow ourselves to learn from it. We must take care in the process of discernment related to contested names not to obfuscate our history and thus avoid challenging conversations that could result in healing dialogue in our communities.
  • Principle of Discernment: Fitting with our liberal arts heritage, the process of discernment related to contested names should be one of deep, ongoing inquiry, and student engagement. Student engagement creates a profound opportunity for powerful and transformational learning that will reinforce foundational principles of the institution which are imperative to our shared liberal arts experience. In the learning and discernment process related to contested names, the central question should concern whether or not the principal legacy of the namesake is fundamentally at odds with the vision of Rhodes College.1 The principal legacy of a namesake must be determined through scholarly inquiry related to an individual’s reputation, the causes and ideas for which the person advocated, prevailing historical memory, and enduring consequences in the world. For example, after careful study, the college may find that a name is fundamentally at odds with our vision if the namesake’s principal legacy is connected to harassment or discrimination.
  • Principle of Inclusion: Our campus naming practices should indicate our desire that all students, faculty, and staff feel welcomed, valued, and safe on our campus. While this desire extends to every member of our community, we strive to be particularly attentive to the needs of groups who may feel isolated or alienated as a result of their underrepresentation on our campus. While we acknowledge that some of the college’s historical associations may cause discomfort, we believe that living in productive and creative tension with the past can mitigate the impact of these associations while we seek to become a more inclusive and welcoming campus.
  • Principle of Hospitable Environment: Although Rhodes College is a private college on private land, we believe the college should approach its built environment as a public space. In addition to our valued relationship with the city and citizens of Memphis who enrich our learning environment, we also welcome visitors from across the globe. We want to be sure that those visiting our campus feel welcome, and have access to historical information (for example, signage or websites) about contested names on buildings, objects or spaces.
  • Principle of Transparency: In the process of discernment related to contested names, it is essential to communicate with the constituencies of Rhodes College throughout the process. In those instances when past donors or others were involved in our naming practices, every effort will be made to communicate with and work with their current agents and representatives. It is our affirmative obligation to interpret and reinterpret the names of college facilities and the narratives behind them, and to openly communicate the rationale for any decision to rename.

None of these principles can override legal obligations, the commitment to the college’s fundamental educational mission, and the board’s fiduciary responsibilities.

Ultimately, renaming decisions rest with the Board of Trustees.

Submitted to the Rhodes College Board of Trustees, April, 2018 by the following ad hoc committee members:

Meg Crosby (Trustee), Co-Chair
Milton Moreland (VPAA), Co-Chair
Ryan Mire ’93 (Trustee)
Spence Wilson (Trustee Emeritus)
Christy Weir Kruger ’85 (Vice President of the Alumni Association Board)
Dorothy Wells ’82 (Alumni Representative)
Steve Haynes (Professor of Religious Studies)
Bill Skoog (Professor of Music)
Bill Short ’71 (College Archivist)
Alicia Golston (Associate Dean of Students)
Thomas Mitchell ’18 (RSG President)
Sarah Eiland ’20 (Student Representative)

Appendix A - Excerpts from the Yale Report on the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming

Is a principal legacy of the namesake fundamentally at odds with the mission of the University?
We ask about a namesake’s principal legacies because human lives, as Walt Whitman wrote, are large; they contain multitudes. Whitman, as it happens, contained virtues and vices himself. He excoriated the Lincoln administration for insisting on equal treatment for black soldiers held as prisoners of war in the South. But his principal legacies are as a path-breaking poet and writer. Frederick Douglass contrasted African Americans with Indians, who he said were easily “contented” with small things such as blankets, and who would “die out” in any event. But his principal legacies are as an abolitionist and an advocate for civil rights.

Of course, interpretations of a namesake’s principal legacies are subject to change over time. They may vary in the eye of the beholder as well.

Three factors constrain such changes or limit their significance in the analysis. First, asking about principal legacies directs us to consider not only the memory of a namesake, but also the enduring consequences of the namesake in the world. As the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, a legacy is “a long-lasting effect.” Principal legacies, as we understand them, are typically the lasting effects that cause a namesake to be remembered. Even significant parts of a namesake’s life or career may not constitute a principal legacy. Scholarly consensus about principal legacies is a powerful measure.

Second, even if interpretations of legacies change, they do not change on any single person’s or group’s whim; altering the interpretation of a historical figure is not something that can be done easily. Third, the principal legacies of a namesake are not the only consideration. They should be considered in combination with the other principles set forth above and below in this report.

Determining the principal legacies of a namesake obliges the University to study and make a scholarly judgment on how the namesake’s legacies should be understood. Prevailing historical memories may be misleading or incorrect, and prevailing scholarly views may be incomplete.
A principal legacy would be fundamentally at odds with the mission of the University if, for example, it contradicted the University’s avowed goal of making the world a better place through, among other things, the education of future leaders in an “ethical, interdependent, and diverse community.” A principal legacy of racism and bigotry would contradict this goal.

Was the relevant principal legacy significantly contested in the time and place in which the namesake lived?
Evaluating a namesake by the standards of the namesake’s time and place offers a powerful measure of the legacy today. Such an evaluation does not commit the University to a relativist view of history and ethics. An important reason to attend to the standards of a namesake’s time and place is that doing so recognizes the moral fallibility of those who aim to evaluate the past. Paying attention to the standards of the time also usefully distinguishes those who actively promoted some morally odious practice, or dedicated much of their lives to upholding that practice, on the one hand, from those whose relationship to such a practice was unexceptional, on the other.

The idea that people can have unexceptional relationships to moral horrors is one of the most disturbing features in human history. Examining the standards of a namesake’s time and place therefore does more than confront us with the limits of our own capacities. It helps us see people as embedded in particular times and particular places – and it helps us identify those whose legacies are properly thought of as singularly and distinctively unworthy of honor.

Renaming is more likely to be warranted (a) when insistent and searching critiques of the relevant legacy were available at the time and place in which the namesake lived, than (b) when the conduct of the namesake was unexceptional and therefore not subject to such insistent and searching critique.

1 The example of Yale University’s list of renaming principles is useful as a guide to understanding the concept of “principal legacy”; see pages 19-21 in the report linked here: (See Appendix A)