The Black Student Union as a part of Western Washington University’s Black Student Organization, came together to create a list of demands for Western in June 2020. Amongst these was, “Prioritize the renaming of Huxley college... as well as re-evaluat[e] current buildings [names].”
The Legacy Review Task Force is responsible for reviewing, “a report prepared by Western Libraries Heritage Resources on the history and significance of building names on Western's Bellingham campus,” according to their website. However, the task force will not suggest replacement names for the new buildings. Instead, that responsibility falls to Western’s Board of Trustees and President Sabah Randhawa .
The task force, a group made of 10 members from the Western community, includes faculty representatives appointed by the faculty senate, two student representatives appointed by Western’s AS President Abdul-Malik Ford and Senate Pro Tempore Sargun Handa.
“The task force was the response of the Board of Trustees to BSO demand number six,” said Laura Wagner, a senator for the College of Environment and member of the task force.
“Building names matter... those buildings are a part of our everyday lives,” said Natalia Fernández, interim director of the Special Collections and Archives Research Center at Oregon State University. “We walk into them, we reference them, we point to them. The histories behind them are important, not just the architectural history, but who they're named after, who we're honoring.”
Oregon State University also called for its own renaming process in 2017 after issues were brought to the university’s attention by Black student leaders. Avery Lodge, a residence hall and Benton Annex which houses OSU’s Women’s Center, were both renamed.
When speaking on the name changing process, Fernández said transparency is the most important thing.
“It can mean that at the end of the process, even if people disagree, that there's understanding as to how the decision came to be,” Fernández said.
On April 29 at the Huxley Speaker Series, an event that brings guest lecturers to speak about environmental concerns, the task force came to speak about their work.
“They weren't just discrediting all the work that Huxley did do as well,” said Sage Martin, a third-year in the College of the Environment. “They were very clear about wanting to make sure his name is honored and that he did help start this college and he did have important viewpoints that helped bring education to more people.”
During the Speaker Series, Wagner shared a research document she compiled, which included quotes from Thomas Henry Huxley’s essays, lectures and personal letters to family members. In his essay titled “Emancipation: Black and White,” Huxley stated that he thinks the average white man is superior to the average Black man.
On May 7, Wayne Landis and Steve Hollenhorst, a professor and the dean of the College of the Environment, respectively, wrote an op-ed for The Seattle Times on the issue. Landis and Hollenhorst declined to be interviewed.
“While the quotes [from Emancipation: Black and White] sound dreadful to our modern ear … Huxley was appealing to a British public that supported the Confederacy,” Landis and Hollenhorst wrote in the op-ed. “Arguing against racial oppression, [Huxley] goes much further to extend the proposition of universal rights, and to condemn the oppression that denies these rights.”
Wagner also shared the op-ed with the task force, stating in an Instagram message, “because the Op Ed is relevant to the work that the Task Force is doing and discussions [they]’re having.”
On May 17, David Leaf, a Western biology professor, along with Hollenhorst and Landis wrote another op-ed for The Planet. In the writings, the credibility of the research that the task force used was called into question.
“The Glumaz citation was ... included in the follow-up research document submitted to the Task Force, and the basic framework and arguments were maintained,” Leaf, Hollenhorst and Landis wrote in the op-ed. “Quote-mining is used extensively throughout the report, with most of the lifted passages quote-mined previously by creationists.”
Quote-mining, as explained in the op-ed, was what creationists, those opposed to evolution, used as “...argument[s] that misrepresents the writer’s position and ... virtually all the arguments against Huxley can be traced back to creationist sources.”
Student leaders and faculty of the environmental studies program responded with an opinion editorial published in The Front on May 21.
“Taking student and faculty concerns, Huxley’s own words and the afore-mentioned scholars into consideration, we support the change in the college’s name and welcome the benefits that would follow,” said the opinion piece which was written by faculty who will form the new environmental studies program in fall 2021.
In addition to the College of the Environment, the task force is looking at, “a few other buildings that we wanted to investigate further,” Wagner said. “So, there will be other buildings involved in our recommendation.” Wagner did not elaborate on which buildings these were.
The Legacy Review Task Force has until May 31 to submit their recommendations to the Board of Trustees and Randhawa.
The renaming process is just one part of a larger journey that needs to continue to happen, Fernández said. “This is just a small step to be taken in order for institutions, especially public universities, to really and truly engage in anti-racism.”
Reporting contributed by Verónica Angulo
Kate Yeoman is a third-year at Western and a reporter for The Front. Kate’s work includes campus-related news and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.