As the University of Michigan begins a yearlong celebration of its bicentennial, it also has concluded a thoughtful, yearlong review of how it would handle requests to reconsider the historical names of buildings on the Ann Arbor campus.

Students and others on a number of college campuses nationally have, in recent years, questioned the practice of naming buildings after those whose actions or views, in their own times, supported slavery or discrimination. 

Should a member of the university community advocate for a building name to be reconsidered, the university now has a process for researching and considering such a request.

President Mark Schlissel has accepted recommendations from the President’s Advisory Committee on University History that outline the way in which such a request would be considered against a set of guiding principles.

“I deeply appreciate the thoughtful and deliberate way in which the advisory committee approached this work,” Schlissel says. “It is immensely important to me, and to the entire university community, that we take a scholarly approach to any review of historical building names and put that review in the appropriate context.”

The advisory committee, chaired by Bentley Historical Library Director Terry McDonald, developed the recommendations after being asked by the president to consider how the university should approach such requests.

“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,” says McDonald, a professor of history and former LSA dean.

A committee advising the president on historical issues has existed since the establishment of the University Committee on History and Traditions by President James J. Duderstadt in 1991. The committee was renamed and its current members appointed by President Mary Sue Coleman.

McDonald says 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. 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,” McDonald writes in the committee’s final report to the president, which articulated these principles:

• The principle of pedagogy: As an institution of learning, U-M’s naming process and outcome should always be an opportunity for learning — learning about the past, about path-breaking contributions by the faculty, about the distinguished lives of alumni, about extraordinary acts of generosity or important contributions to administrative leadership.

• The principle of interpretation: When a name is selected for a building or portion of a building, the obligation to explain and interpret that name does not end at the conclusion of the naming ceremony. Indeed, it is not only good stewardship on behalf of those after whom spaces are named, but also an affirmative obligation of the pedagogical principle to continuously interpret — and if necessary reinterpret — the names and the stories behind the names of university facilities. … In some cases, changing a name may be less important than providing adequate interpretation of it.

• The principle of due diligence: In approaching a naming decision, the university owes it to itself and to succeeding generations to do substantial research into the name, and that this research should be focused on the public record.

• The principle of commitment: In general, the university community makes a significant commitment to an individual or a family when it names a space after a person. This applies both to spaces named for donors and for others. In some cases involving donors, this naming is regulated by a binding legal agreement.

• The principle of revision: The exciting and important thing about the study of history is that both the materials for and the understanding of the past are constantly changing. At a research university, historical scholars must lead the way in producing these new historical discoveries and interpretations. If these new understandings, from time to time, produce controversy over space names, that is not an unnatural thing.

• The principle of historical and institutional context: It is easy to blame those in the past for lacking the knowledge, wisdom and values that we seem to possess. … An institution of knowledge must leave room for an essential truth: The search for new knowledge through research is messy.

• The principle of consistency: There have been more than 16,000 faculty members in the history of the university; many more staff members, 14 presidents. Why some are honored with space names and others are not is a major question about our past. … Space names also tend to reflect the early composition of the university: an all-male student body until 1870 and an overwhelmingly male faculty until the mid-20th century.

• The principle of contemporary effect: Honorifics given at one time can have significantly different effects on community members at another and these, too, are worthy of consideration.

The committee noted the list of principles is not exhaustive; other principles may be proposed or discovered in the future.

The process outlined by the committee, and accepted by the president, establishes an intentionally “heavy burden” on those who wish to change a formally designated name of a building or other space.

All discussions regarding a proposal also must take into account a legal analysis and the stipulations in the university’s “Policy for naming facilities, space and streets,” adopted by the Board of Regents in 2008. This policy outlines four ways in which a building or space may be named:

• To honor individuals by recognizing exceptional contributions shaping the university.

• To commemorate university history and traditions.

• To honor long-term and significant financial contributions to the university.

• To honor financial contributions to support the structure being named.

The new process will allow any member of the university community to submit a request to the Office of the President to review the name of an officially named space.

The president may refer the proposal to the President’s Advisory Committee on University History to determine whether a review should proceed and make recommendations for how that review should occur.

The president would decide whether to proceed and in what manner. Ultimately, building naming decisions — including changes — rest with the elected Board of Regents.