What's in a Name?

Rethinking criteria for campus appellations.

May/June 2016

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What began as a student campaign to remove the name of the controversial 18th-century Roman Catholic priest Junípero Serra from Stanford’s address and buildings has produced a deeper scrutiny of campus nomenclature and its sociocultural implications. 

The issue gained traction in February, following resolutions passed by the Undergraduate Senate and the Graduate Student Council, when ASSU executives John-Lancaster Finley and Brandon Hill, both ’16, addressed the Faculty Senate. In effect, they described a disconnect. Stanford’s “truly matchless commitment” to the Native American community was evident, they noted, in the Powwow, the Muwekma-Tah-Ruk dorm, the repatriation of remains and the discontinuation of the Indian mascot. At the same time, Serra Mall, Serra House and Junipero House memorialized the founder of California missions that subjugated indigenous communities, including the Muwekma Ohlone, who lived on land now occupied by Stanford. The students urged faculty to take action.

To that end, at the Faculty Senate meeting on March 3, Provost John Etche-mendy, PhD ’82, announced the formation of a committee to consider principles about naming, whether existing names should be removed or changed, and whether it makes a difference if a namesake—such as Serra—has no direct university connection. He noted that many of the oldest campus names were chosen to commemorate California historical figures, not all of them with unblemished records. Emeritus history professor David Kennedy, ’63, will chair the group; its university-wide representatives have yet to be named.

In response to the ASSU resolution, the Faculty Senate then took up a motion to reaffirm “Stanford’s commitment to strengthening the life and identity of the Native American community on campus”; to support “the spirit of critically reflecting on Stanford’s historical legacy, including the use of names of people who have been associated with it”; and to welcome the special committee “to review the naming of campus buildings and sites.” After some discussion and an amendment that would include named “entities and activities” in the special committee’s purview, the motion passed unanimously. 

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