University Committee on Naming Honors creating roadmap for future

By Susan Carini | Emory Report | April 6, 2021

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The University Committee on Naming Honors, which is reviewing contested historic names and examining new historic names, will issue its report to Emory’s president in May.

Planning to release its report to President Gregory L. Fenves in May, the University Committee on Naming Honors is moving into the last phase of its work. Chaired by Fred Smith Jr., associate professor of law, the Naming Honors committee was charged with examining new historic names and reviewing contested historic names associated with buildings, spaces, programs, scholarships and other celebratory titles that honor individuals.  

There is synergy with the Task Force on Untold Stories and Disenfranchised Populations, which issued its report to the president on April 1. The task force addressed how to recognize contributions by enslaved persons whose labor helped build the Emory campus, and their descendants, as well as Indigenous nations and peoples on whose lands Emory’s campus was erected.

According to Smith, as timely as the work before the Naming Honors committee is, even more critical is its ability to provide a viable framework for the future.

“We are creating a rigorous process so that this work can be continued into the future in ways that are transparent and reflect Emory’s values,” Smith says. “One of the most meaningful outcomes of our efforts has been to reframe the conversation so that the university can identify those whom it wants to celebrate at this time in its history.”

Guiding principles and gifted helpers

Emory’s Task Force on Legacies in 2017 established key principles that have guided the Naming Honors committee. Those guidelines stipulate that naming honors bestowed by Emory should be consistent with the university’s mission and reflect its values; that all names have the potential to affect the university’s reputation; that a presumption against renaming should prevail, absent exceptional circumstances; that strategies other than renaming be considered; and that in cases of adding or removing a name, Emory must commit to telling that story as transparently and completely as possible.

These principles remain foundational; however, the Naming Honors committee has adjusted them to make evaluating honorific names more tractable, recognizing that this process will need to be undertaken at various points in Emory’s future and not as an exceptional event.

The Naming Honors committee has reviewed scholarly resources and heard from guest speakers, including Joseph Crespino, chair of the history department and Jimmy Carter Professor, who served on the Task Force on Legacies.

The committee also added two research assistants, both of whom are PhD students at Emory. They are working with committee member Alison Collis Greene, associate professor of American religious history at Candler School of Theology. The graduate students, in conjunction with University Archivist John Bence, have assembled the background information on contested historic names for the full committee to consider.

Greene acknowledges that “Emory has a difficult history to confront. But President Fenves and the members of this committee are doing that work, and I believe it will yield real change. It is a hopeful time at Emory, and I am happy to be here for it.”

What the call to serve has meant 

Jill Hamilton, associate professor in the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, enthusiastically accepted the invitation to join the committee, welcoming the chance to “leave my comfort zone and be exposed to community members representing other types of expertise across campus.”

Her contribution has been to assist with the framework that is so critical to evaluating the names. These types of conversations can invoke strong emotion, as has been clear, for example, in national discussions about Confederate names. Hamilton says that her colleagues on the committee have put emotions to the side and been extremely respectful of one another. “We have listened,” she says, “to the experts and one another.” 

Before she got the letter of invitation to join the committee, Hamilton mirrored the experience of many community members. Immersed in the work of her discipline, she acknowledges that there were gaps in her knowledge of Emory’s history; she also wasn’t fully aware of the actions Emory is taking for racial justice outlined by Fenves on August 13, 2020.

For that reason, she is appreciative of the deeper education that the two presidential committees will offer the community. “Even though I represent health sciences, I intend to be as committed as anyone else at Emory to knowing its history as fully as I can and to sharing it with our students as well,” says Hamilton.

As a person of science, Hamilton has been pleased with the committee’s rigor, saying, “we will not make the ultimate decisions. But I am confident that our recommendations are based on the best evidence.”

Anticipating being able to deliver a final product in a few weeks, Hamilton adds, “I want people at Emory to look back on this time and say that we did something good.”

Guiding the community through new forms of reflection 

As was true of Hamilton, Salmon Shomade, associate professor of political science at Oxford College, had general awareness of the issues that arise from Emory’s history but has learned so much more in the process of serving on two of the committee’s working groups. 

“Emory has a rich and powerful history and some of it might be complicated and less inclusive, especially when examined in the context of our world today,” he says. 

In Shomade’s view, all that is being done — the work of the presidential committees and the racial justice initiatives — should reinforce Emory’s strength as an academic institution. “We are critically examining these complex issues, just as we teach our students to do, rather than pushing them in one direction or the other along the ideological spectrum,” he says. 

If Shomade has any concern, it is that the university must get fully out of a reactive mode. “It should not wait for when certain communities within the institution demand change or when things happen in the larger society for it to react. I am a believer that we must always act and not just occasionally react,” he adds.

Emory’s vice provost for global strategy and initiatives, Philip Wainwright 85G, has a unique perspective as a committee member, a graduate of both Emory College of Arts and Sciences as well as Laney Graduate School, and now a long-serving employee.

Describing the university as a place of “deep meaning” for him, Wainwright notes that the committee’s work acknowledges “the profound experiences that so many of us have had on Emory’s campuses.”

“Yet it also calls us to recognize that Emory is a dynamic place and a changing community,” Wainwright adds. “We therefore are taking a serious look at the meaning of places, changing priorities and values, and the alignment of place names with the values of today’s Emory community.”