The University of Oregon should re-name Deady and Dunn Halls

Background: My university is currently weighing whether to re-name two buildings on campus. It was prompted to do so by the UO Black Student Task Force, which demanded last year that the buildings be renamed. Deady Hall is an academic building named after Matthew Deady, a politician and later judge who advocated successfully at the founding of our state to exclude Black citizens from residing here. Dunn Hall is a residence hall named after a former professor who was also an Exalted Cyclops of the KKK. Our president, Michael Schill, created a process for making the decision and appointed a commission of historians to study the two figures and their legacy. The commission has issued its report, and now Schill has invited comment from the university community. Below is the comment that I submitted:

Both buildings should be re-named. I find myself very much in agreement with the reasoning that Matthew Dennis stated in his August 21 Register-Guard editorial. Building names are not neutral markers; they are a way to put a name in a place of prominence and honor the namesake. The idea that we need to keep their names on the buildings as “reminders” simply does not stand up to scrutiny. We have a history department to teach us about history. We name buildings for other reasons.

Dunn Hall seems like the obvious case, being named after a former Exalted Cyclops of the KKK. I fear that in doing one obviously right thing, the university will feel morally licensed to “split the difference” and keep Deady. That would be a mistake.

At the founding of our state, Deady actively promoted the exclusion of Black citizens from Oregon. The defense of Deady seems to rest primarily on his later stance toward Chinese immigrants and descendants. The implication is that that somehow erases his lifelong anti-Black racism, as if racism and racial atonement against different groups are fungible. This strikes me as a distinctly White perspective, viewing non-White groups as interchangeable. Will we look in the face of a community that has been harmed, proclaim “But he was decent to those other people!” and expect them to accept that as amends?

The fact is that Deady never made amends for his anti-Black racism, he never disavowed it, and his actions are still reverberating today in a state whose population includes about 2% African Americans. My department (Psychology) has never had an African American tenure-track professor, and I have been told that the same is true across the entire Division of Natural Sciences. While the reasons are surely complex, I will note that when my department has tried to recruit African American faculty, the underrepresentation of African Americans in our community has come up as a challenge in enticing people to move here and make Oregon their home. That underrepresentation is the direct legacy of Matthew Deady’s political activism. This is not a man that the university should be honoring.

Postscript: You can read more about the history of racism in Oregon in Matt Novak’s well-researched article at Gizmodo.

Hiring Robert Berdahl would be a show of strength for the OUS Chancellor and Board

My university’s president, Richard Lariviere, was fired last week. I sent this letter to Chancellor George Pernsteiner and the members of the State Board of Higher Education on Friday, December 2, 2011. Links have been added for the blog post.

Dear Chancellor and Members of the Board:

I am writing to you to urge you to hire Robert Berdahl as interim President of the University of Oregon. I agree with the UO Senate Executive Committee’s recommendation that Berdahl and Berdahl alone is suited for this position. I will not restate their reasoning here (all of which I concur with), but I want to add something.

Earlier this week, Dr. Berdahl wrote an op-ed in the Register-Guard criticizing you for firing Richard Lariviere. In conversations, some of my colleagues have suggested that the op-ed would make it difficult for you to credibly hire Dr. Berdahl. I believe the opposite is true: hiring Berdahl would be a showing of credibility and strength on your part. Here is why:

About Dr. Lariviere’s termination, you have stated that it “has nothing to do with policy positions or conflicting visions for the future of the University of Oregon.” Rather, “This was an issue of lack of communication and eroded trust.” (OUS Press Release of Nov 28, 2011). Right now, rightly or wrongly, many people in the University of Oregon community, around the state, and beyond doubt those words. They believe that you could not tolerate dissent, that you acted because your authority was threatened, and that you were afraid of change.

This, now, is your opportunity to back up your words with actions and show your critics, the state, and the world that you mean what you say. Dr. Berdahl has a long and distinguished history of establishing trust and communication with people he disagrees with and working effectively with state governance bodies. And he shares much of Dr. Lariviere’s broad vision. By selecting Dr. Berdahl, you would show that your idea of teamwork does not mean lock-step submission, that this is not about ego, and that you are willing to have a change agent on your team who will work with you for the good of higher education in all of Oregon. Thus, not only would Dr. Berdahl be an outstanding president, his selection would also go a long way toward restoring confidence in your governance and repairing badly damaged communication.

For the good of the university, its students, and the state that it serves, I urge you to select Dr. Berdahl.

Sanjay Srivastava