Universities can change names without distancing themselves from troubling histories

Nicholas Currie. ‘Big Line’ (orange, purple and pink stain), 2024. Ink and oil paint unprimed canvas

Removing a person’s name from a building need not mean the University severs its relationship with its past, instead it is an opportunity to redefine our future

Dr James Waghorne, University of Melbourne

Dr James WaghorneNicholas Currie

Published 28 May 2024

Readers are advised this article contains distressing descriptions and derogatory terms for Indigenous people used in their historical context.

During the celebrations for the University of Melbourne’s 150th anniversary in 2003, which included a series of public events as well as the release of new histories and the staging of exhibitions, students raised questions about the University’s colonial legacy and its complicity in historical racism.

Aboriginal human remains that had been collected almost 100 years earlier by then-professor of anatomy Richard Berry had been discovered stored in the Medical School, prompting an outcry.

A 2003 article in the University’s student newspaper, Farago, called for renaming of buildings named for eugenicists. Picture: Farago/University of Melbourne Digitised Collections.

The critics observed that Berry, who had a building named after him, had also recently been publicly identified as an active eugenicist, and they expanded their critique to include other so-honoured individuals, including Berry’s contemporaries, namely professor of biology Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer, education reformer Frank Tate and professor of zoology, Wilfred Agar.

Recent scholarship had revealed that Berry, Tate and Agar had advocated eugenic measures to limit the reproduction of people of ‘inferior’ stock, as they viewed it.

And a major Indigenous history survey had uncovered comments Spencer made to the Herald newspaper at the end of his career disparaging Aboriginal people’s capacity to benefit from education.

Where, in the sesquicentennial moment, were these ‘unsavoury’ aspects of the University’s past, these students asked? How could the University have named buildings and lecture theatres after men associated with such ideas, and why did it tolerate this now?

At this moment, when the University’s history had come into prominence, wasn’t it time for a “fuller recognition and acknowledgement of the university’s past”?

Vice-Chancellor Alan Gilbert’s response was sympathetic, short and revealing.

He conveyed that the request had prompted “a lot of careful consideration”. He and his colleagues agreed with many of the criticisms raised against Berry and Spencer, which he saw as a “warning about the dangers of universities voicing and endorsing indefensible conventional wisdom”.

However, he felt that “rewriting history is far from the best way to deal with past injustices”, implying that renaming a building could be interpreted as the University erasing past connections rather than acknowledging them.

Gilbert’s letter reflected the quandary naming presented.

Naming a building or lecture theatre conveys honour on the recipient, binding them and their legacy to their university.

For past professors, it recognises their achievements and standing among the university community. For philanthropists it reflects the university’s gratitude for major donations without which the university would be diminished.

Naming spaces connects the university to its past and urges students to revere and be inspired by the names they look up at as they cross building and lecture theatre thresholds.

Names give personality to a campus.

Naming a building binds the recipient and their legacy to the University, for good or bad. Picture: University of Melbourne

At the University of Melbourne, naming is the responsibility of the University Council, but often the Council delegated the nomination of candidates to faculties with little formal process.

It had been odd to name the mathematics building for Richard Berry in 1970, for example, since the medical faculty had since vacated the building in its move to the south-western corner of the campus.

Furthermore, the similar-sounding Redmond Barry, Richard Berry and Raymond Priestley buildings caused confusion, especially among first-year students, prompting calls to improve planning.

Little in the process for naming rooms and buildings anticipated opposition.

Criticisms of some of the building names emerged at the University of Melbourne during the 1990s, spurred by increasing numbers of Indigenous students and a new politics of reconciliation.

In 1999, Indigenous activists, including Gary Foley and others, staged a mock public trial of the statue of John Batman, the ‘founder’ of Melbourne, for his participation in frontier violence. In a 1998 article in Farrago, lecturer Tony Birch called on students to ‘reflect on’ the naming of the Baldwin Spencer Building.

Associate professor of history Ann Trindade, writing a letter of support in the next issue, stated her view that “if I were Koori I would feel shamed and insulted every time I walked past”.

Universities can change names without distancing themselves from troubling histories; removing a person’s name from a building need not mean the university severs its relationship with its past.

Associate professor of history Ann Trindade, wrote a letter supporting renaming. Picture: Farago/University of Melbourne Digitised Collections.

On the contrary, if changes are fully discussed and properly acknowledged, they become a focus for thinking about universities and their current directions. They can inform teaching and open discussion about the social, political and cultural aspects of universities’ histories.

If the University of Melbourne’s naming citations were published, they would give an overwhelming impression of the substantial contributions that past members have made within the University and across public life.

They would inform discussion not only about building names but also how academic roles and disciplinary knowledge have changed. By assessing universities’ current values, and associating them with those of the past, we have a chance to redefine their future.

In December 2016, the Council voted to rename the Richard Berry Building. It did so with little consultation or public fanfare.

The sign was changed for one in identical font, now bearing the name of the late professor of mathematics and statistics, Peter Hall, and a short press statement was released that explained the longstanding residency of mathematics in the building – but offered no comment on Berry.

There is to date no plaque or other form of communication explaining the name change and the reasons behind it.

This is an edited extract from Dhoombak Goobgoowana – A history of Indigenous Australia and the University of Melbourne – Volume 1: Truth, published by Melbourne University Publishing and edited by Dr Ross Jones, Dr James Waghorne and Professor Marcia Langton. Hard copies are available to purchase, and a free digital copy is available through an open-access portal.

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