University reaffirms commitment to ‘belonging and justice’ through naming, renaming of facilities

By News@TheU

University reaffirms commitment to ‘belonging and justice’ through naming, renaming of facilities

By News@TheU
In a series of decisions Monday, the executive committee of the University of Miami Board of Trustees moved to recognize the legacies of Black role models and also remove names from a building structure and recital hall.

The University of Miami announced yesterday that it will celebrate the accomplishments, contributions, and legacies of Black role models who were integral in shaping the course of the institution through the naming of buildings on the school’s 239-acre Coral Gables Campus. 

The decision to do so, reached by the executive committee of the Board of Trustees on Monday evening, reaffirms “our commitment to belonging and justice by recognizing those who overcame racism to enrich our campus, our city, and our world,” Hilarie Bass, chair of the board, and President Julio Frenk stated in a joint message sent to the University community.

The executive committee also revealed plans for a $3 million renovation of 13,000 square feet on the second floor of the University Center that will serve as a multicultural space for informal gatherings and programming for cultural organizations. In addition, the committee ruled on two petitions related to on-campus facilities, announcing plans to rename the Fillmore rehearsal hall at the Frost School of Music and to remove the George E. Merrick name from a parking garage. 

“Our actions today acknowledge the pain and the promise of our Black students, alumni, colleagues, and neighbors while intentionally choosing to learn from and build, on our history,” Bass and Frenk noted. “We engaged in serious deliberations about our past, our future, and our ongoing pursuit of racial justice.” 

The decision to recognize noted Black role models comes as the nation continues to wrestle with its legacy of racial injustice. It also comes on the heels of recent recommendations made by the 12-member Historic Review Committee on Naming (HRCN), which urged the University to “reaffirm and strengthen” its commitment to inclusion and recognize the dignity of all persons. 

“During this time of racial reckoning in the United States, the decisions we make must be shaped by our aspiration to be an exemplary institution in the community and nation,” the message stated. “That desire compelled us to reevaluate how we can do better to address head-on the hurtful aspects of our past and apply their lessons to our future.” 

The University community will see the results of the executive committee’s actions as early as this fall, when the new three-story Student Services Building, located near Mahoney-Pearson dining hall behind the Lowe Art Museum, will be named for a distinguished Black University alumnus or alumna. “In helping to transform the way we provide services to our students, this state-of-the-art building reflects our ambition to lead the educational revolution by providing an education for life that has belonging, equity, and justice at its core,” the message said. “This decision stems from our commitment to honoring ’Canes from all walks of life as the University continues to grow, evolve, and thrive.” 

A small committee of trustees and faculty and student members will be selected to identify an appropriate namesake, with a grand opening and dedication ceremony taking place in the fall.

During Monday’s meeting, the executive committee voted to rename the rehearsal hall at the Frost School of Music to honor an individual whose accomplishments reflect the values of the University and whose life epitomizes a personal commitment to the institution. 

The hall was named after Henry Fillmore, who used patently offensive language and images to promote his music. His most prominent work—the success of which led to his renown and likely the naming—was full of racist caricatures that amounted to dehumanizing Black people. 

Fillmore died in 1956, nearly a decade after the federal government took action to end segregation in the United States armed forces. In considering whether Fillmore acknowledged the negative aspects of his work, the HRCN concluded he did not. 

A special committee appointed by the Board of Trustees will research a new name for the rehearsal hall, with input from students, faculty, alumni, and other members of the University community. That committee will make its recommendation in the coming months. 

In another decision made Monday by the executive committee, the parking garage on Merrick Drive will no longer be referred to by the University founder’s name. Bass and Frenk noted that the University has much to be thankful for to George E. Merrick, “yet we understand that for some members of our community, the name on this garage is a reminder of the harm caused by segregation.” A neutral directional name for the parking garage will be adopted. 

The executive committee decided to retain the names to another building and a street on campus that both bear the Merrick family name and were the subject of a second petition before the board. 

One of the oldest structures on the Coral Gables Campus, the Solomon G. Merrick Building was named in honor of George Merrick’s father in consideration for the gift of 160 acres of land and $5 million in financial support that led to the University being established. “[We] do not believe that individuals should be judged by the shortcomings of their family members,” Bass and Frenk said. 

As for the roadway, the renaming of George E. Merrick Street goes beyond the purview of the Board of Trustees. 

“While we recognize that George Merrick’s proposals as chair of the Dade County Planning Board perpetuated a wealth gap for Black residents and broad inequities in our community that persist to this day,” the message stated, his vision and donation made possible the institution that would later become one of the first universities in Florida to desegregate. “The fact of that progress underlines that, while George Merrick himself might not have imagined our University in all of its current rich diversity, in the years since his life and death, the institution he helped found has made and continues to make substantial headway toward racial justice and equity, and we are committed to continuing that pursuit.” 

At each structure involved in the petitions, the University will educate the campus community about its past and vision for the future, establishing prominent and widely accessible educational features that will introduce the history of the current and prior honorees, provide context, and explain the decision to retain or remove a structure’s historic name. “These markers will remind us that we can recognize the important contributions individuals have made to our University, while acknowledging that the actions in which they engaged during their lifetimes are not consistent with our views today,” Bass and Frenk said.

In addressing the renaming petitions, the executive committee considered three key issues. It examined the context in which honorees exhibited behavior that is contrary to the University’s values and hurtful to members of the community, contemplated the opportunity honorees had to express regret or correct their actions during their lifetimes, and considered the balance between how the impact of an honoree’s actions ran counter to or advanced the mission of the institution. 

This summer, leaders of student organizations and the 2021-22 Student Center Complex Advisory Council will work with University officials to solicit input on the design of the planned renovation space at the University Center. The flexible space, which students expressed a desire to create, could be expanded to meet the needs of a number of student groups on campus. The space could be open in as soon as 18 months. 

Bass and Frenk thanked the many entities involved in the process, acknowledging the work of the HRCN; the guidance and perspective of the board’s Ad Hoc Committee on Diversity and Social Justice; and the students, faculty, staff, trustees, and community members who made their voices heard through a rigorous review process.