December 9, 2021
Dear Members of the Harvard Community,
I write today to share news that the Committee to Articulate Principles on Renaming has issued its final report. President Emerita Drew Faust and her committee colleagues have anchored their outstanding work in eloquent and nuanced reflections on “the ecology of names” at Harvard. My gratitude for their effort is best expressed through encouragement to read the report—and the thoughtful guidance it offers—in full.
Among many virtues, the report sets forth a clear set of principles and a helpful framework for considering cases in which Harvard might contemplate removing an individual’s name from a building or other object “based on the perception that a namesake’s actions or beliefs were ‘abhorrent’ in the context of current values.” A member or members of our community advocating denaming would be expected to present a thoroughly researched and documented request that addresses:
whether, in what ways, and to what extent “the name creates a harmful environment that undermines the ability of current students, faculty, or staff to participate fully in the work of the University”;
whether the historical evidence advanced to supporting a denaming request is marked by “strength and clarity,” and what is understood about “why our forebears originally selected the name”;
whether, in what ways, and to what extent “the behaviors now seen as morally repugnant are a significant component of that individual’s legacy when viewed in the full context of the namesake’s life”;
whether, in what ways, and to what extent “the namesake’s actions or beliefs we now regard as abhorrent would have been regarded as objectionable in the namesake’s own time”;
whether, in what ways, and to what extent the named building or other named entity “is central to University life and community and to the identity and experience of students, staff, or faculty”;
and whether, in what ways, and to what extent the University might consider alternatives to denaming in order to contextualize the name and namesake by means that allow us to reckon with our history.
As the report rightly notes, “denaming decisions are likely to be complex.” The related process for making them should be “careful, painstaking, and laborious,” and it “should not be undertaken lightly.” When a particular request passes a rigorous threshold and is deemed to warrant a full review, it should proceed with the understanding that, while naming buildings and other objects at Harvard is a common occurrence, removing such names should be an extraordinary one.
As with so many things at Harvard, the consideration of denaming requests will involve a balance and interplay of local and central responsibilities. With the publication of the report, I have asked our Schools to develop their own processes for consideration of such requests. Some such requests will be handled at the School level; others, with broader dimensions, will warrant University-level review. Members of the Academic Council and our designees will work toward processes that strike the right balance of local discretion and University-wide coordination, that invite and take account of varied perspectives, and that aim to bring about consensus rather than contentiousness. Schools will have broad latitude to develop approaches that suit their Schools and the circumstances of particular requests. All of us will take cues from the high-level process recommendations outlined in the report, and we will no doubt learn from experience as cases arise.
For now, I want to thank the members of the committee for their incisive report. Each of us has something to learn from their observations about our community and its past, present, and future. I trust that the committee’s contributions will help us address tough questions with a commitment, as always, to generous listening and learning in pursuit of truth.
All the best, Larry