Each day during the week of Feb. 27, Oregon State University students marched through buildings on campus, disrupting classes and chanting.
This was the chant: “These racist buildings have got to go!”
The students, calling themselves "Organized to Revolution," are trying to call attention to four campus buildings they believe are named after racists. The group’s goal is to get Arnold Dining Center, Avery Lodge, Benton Hall and Gill Coliseum renamed.
The students declined to identify themselves by name when approached by a Gazette-Times reporter, but one of them said: “We are using trying to get rid of building names as a way to draw attention to issues of students of color on campus."
Initially, they have targeted four buildings on campus for a variety of reasons. (See the related story on A4 for details about all four buildings.)
Some cases against some of the buildings seem fairly clear-cut: Avery Lodge, for example, is named for Joseph Avery, a founder of Corvallis who a university historian said owned and edited a pro-slavery newspaper, the Occidental Messenger.
Others are less clear: Thomas Hart Benton, for example, was a Missouri senator who advocated for policies that transferred Oregon land from natives exclusively to white people. And William Montgomery Meigs’ “The Life of Thomas Hart Benton” quotes him making unabashed white supremacist comments to Congress.
But, university officials contend, Benton Hall is not named for the Missouri senator — it is named for Benton County, which was named for the Missouri senator.
“It’s in honor of the community," said Steve Clark, OSU vice president of university relations and marketing. “It has nothing to do with the individual.”
The university is on the verge of adopting a new process for reviewing the complex histories surrounding some building names, likely starting with these four, and making recommendations to OSU President Ed Ray about whether the buildings should be renamed.
Clark, who chairs the university’s Architectural Naming Committee, said the new process has been in development for nearly a year and could be used to begin evaluating building names before the end of March. Clark said the process would call for the issues to be evaluated and decided over a 10-week process.
“We take this very seriously and we’re not going to dawdle,” he said.
The draft proposal outlines the following steps:
• Any community member can submit a renaming request, but Clark’s committee is also allowed to initiate evaluations of building names when community concerns are well-known.
• A subcommittee of the Architectural Naming Committee then will perform a preliminary evaluation to determine if support exists to demonstrate the name may be inconsistent with “OSU’s mission to create an equitable, inclusive, and diverse educational environment.” That review should be complete within 21 days, a draft of the policy said. The subcommittee prepares a written report documenting its evaluation.
• Whether the request for a full evaluation is approved or denied, the university does public outreach and engagement on the topic.
• A full review includes engagement with content area experts and “community education and engagement.”
• The committee is to base its decision based on this question: “Was the ‘context’ of an individual’s life and legacy inconsistent with OSU’s contemporary mission and values such that a building should be renamed?”
• Following an evaluation, the full committee votes on whether to recommend the president rename the building. The full evaluation has a goal of being complete within 30 days.
• Clark said the president would be asked to make a decision on renaming within a week of the decision by the committee.
Larry Landis, OSU’s director of the Special Collections & Archives Research Center, was co-chair of the subcommittee of the Architectural Naming Committee that developed the process for evaluating names.
“This is a vetting process," he said. "We want to make sure OSU as an institution is living up to its core values."
Landis said the subcommittee work began in April 2016 because the administration knew there were concerns in the OSU community about some building names, but also because there has been a national trend toward reconsidering building names at other universities. (The University of Oregon, for example, has gone through controversies recently surrounding the names of some of its buildings.)
Landis said the issues around building names are often highly nuanced, so the committee process gathers both historical information and public input on which the president can base decisions.
“Some of the issues may not be clear-cut," he said. "That’s why you need a process.”
Landis said the process is an opportunity to make the university’s history more accessible. He added that the committee wants the process of evaluating names to be transparent and include opportunities to engage the public, possibly in town hall-style meetings.
“We want everything to be in the open, the good and the bad,” he said.
Landis said the Architectural Naming Committee will likely begin by evaluating the four buildings protested by the students, which are buildings that have been previously discussed as potentially problematic before.
Landis said he recommended the evaluations begin in alphabetical order, so the Arnold Dining Center and Avery will be examined in spring term if everything goes as planned.
Joseph Orosco, a philosophy professor who co-chaired the subcommittee that developed the new process for evaluating names with Landis, said it gives the university a way to have an open and frank discussion about how it distributes honor and recognition through the naming of buildings.
“Very often we think about this issue in terms of what happened in the past. But it really is about the present and the future," he said. "We need a way to talk about what values we want to uphold right now as a community and what kind of university we want to leave for future generations. Many people say we have a responsibility to honor past traditions, but I also believe that we have a responsibility to think about our legacy, and how our present ethical commitments can lead to a more healthy and prosperous community in the future.”
Orosco said many of the students involved in the protest have told him the issue of building names is just the tip of the iceberg for them about questions about equity and inclusion at the university.
“This is one part of a bigger struggle to try to imagine an institution that can work for the benefit of all members of the community, not just the majority. Part of that work is dealing with the reality that OSU was envisioned early on as a place that did not include the participation of faculty and students of color. It took over a hundred years as an institution to come around to its commitment to diversity and inclusion and students want a way to recognize the importance of that struggle and not just the people who probably would not have wanted them here in the first place.”
The university is holding a public meeting to explain the new process and gather public feedback on it at 7 p.m. Monday in Room 268 in the Learning Innovation Center.