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University building’s namesake stirs controversy

Students, faculty demand The University of North Carolina change name of building named for Ku Klux Klan member
University Business, May 2015
This University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill history department building is named for former student, North Carolina secretary of state and Ku Klux Klan member William Saunders.
This University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill history department building is named for former student, North Carolina secretary of state and Ku Klux Klan member William Saunders.

As high-profile racial incidents on college campuses make headlines across the country, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is grappling with controversy surrounding Saunders Hall.

The history building—named for former student, North Carolina secretary of state and Ku Klux Klan member William Saunders—has spurred petitions and demonstrations by students and faculty demanding a name change.

Of course, UNC is not the first school to struggle with its past: In recent years, Brown, East Carolina and Clemson universities experienced similar discourse around buildings on their campuses.

East Carolina renamed the building in question; Brown erected a memorial and used the opportunity to educate their student populations about notorious historical figures and events. Clemson, however, decided to keep the Tillman Building name and continue its work on newer diversity initiatives launched before the controversy.

As of early April, UNC was still exploring how to rid itself of the more offensive parts of its history without deleting it completely. The UNC Board of Trustees invited student groups, the university’s advisory boards and other involved parties to discuss the possibilities at a recent university affairs meeting.

“We want to be as transparent as possible,” UNC Trustee Alston Gardner says. “We have to do this in the public eye, and we have a responsibility to do it an even-handed and open way.” This includes launching a public website inviting the campus community to contribute ideas and opinions on the matter.

Possible solutions include renaming Saunders Hall and posting the complete details of William Saunders’ life in the building. UNC may also require first-year students to take a course that covers the full scope of the school’s history, and/or provide this information during campus tours.

While it is clear a change must be made, the test lies in satisfying all concerned parties, Gardner says. Many want the name changed completely; however, those opposed to the change claim that to delete the name would be to deny the university’s history.

Gardner estimates about 90 percent of faculty are on board with some sort of change to Saunders Hall, while about 50 percent of UNC’s 300,000 alumni support the initiative. “You want to make sure you don’t let the loudest voices win the day just because they’re loud,” he says. “That’s the challenge.”

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