Names That Inspire “Absolute Confidence”*

12 March 2020
*from “The Importance of Being Earnest”

“It doesn’t always happen but history usually squares the ledger sooner or later.”

This is the opening sentence to Andrew Webster’s article in The Sydney Morning Herald in April 2018 (Peter Norman to be recognised for role in 1968 Black Power salute) about the posthumous recognition of Peter Norman’s support for his fellow sprinters, African-Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who made the Black Power salute on the podium at the Mexico Olympics. Peter Norman faced extraordinary hostility on his return to Australia, and it wasn’t until 2012, six years after his death, that the Australian Parliament apologised for the treatment he had received and the failure to recognise “his inspirational role”. In 2018, the Australian Olympic Committee bestowed its ‘Order of Merit’ on him.

When our institutions have cause to revisit their recognition of inspirational people, however, it is less often for failing to recognise those who deserve our admiration, than for having recognised those whose attitudes and actions we now condemn.

In many instances this is because immoral or illegal activities or offensive attitudes have since come to light: there are many examples of buildings being renamed and statutes being removed because the person who was honoured has been revealed as a perpetrator of child abuse.

There are several other recent examples, particularly in the United States and Canada, of the renaming of schools and universities, their buildings and facilities, that were named after eminent individuals whose views about race and ethnicity were well known at the time but are now unacceptable to their communities, and are regarded as outweighing the individuals’ achievements. The debates about renaming have included some valuable discussions about whether, to learn from our past, we need to hold onto reminders of its mistakes.

In British Columbia, Canada, the A W Neill Elementary School was named for the federal Member of Parliament who represented its area between 1921 and 1945, and who was renowned for supporting blue collar workers. He also advocated denying voting rights to Asian immigrants, supported anti-Chinese laws and approved of Indigenous residential schools (Global News, B.C Board launches public effort to rename school named after ‘racist’ federal MP). Professor Reuben Rose-Redwood, a social and cultural geography expert at the University of Victoria, is quoted in the article: “It speaks to what do we in the present hold as our values of who we choose to honour from the past.”

The Harvard Crimson reported on discussions among Harvard University’s community about the university’s links with slaveholding families (The Harvard Crimson, In Debate Over Names, History and Race Relations Collide). The President of Harvard, who is a Civil War historian, said:

“I think if you erase the whole past, it’s too easy to feel innocent. It’s too easy to not learn from it and to think that you’re not going to make any mistakes in the present — you’re better than those mistakes. We’re not better than those mistake."

“Someone 200 years from now is going to wonder something about us — why we’re eating meat, why we’re doing things that we’re doing. And we have to be self-critical enough not to just assume that we’re so much better than people who had to make decisions under different circumstances and in different times."

Another justification for reconsidering how a person has been honoured is their subsequent behaviour. When Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, she was honoured by many institutions around the world. In 2017, when she had become State Counsellor, and in the midst of international condemnation of Myanmar’s treatment of Rohingya Muslims, St Hugh’s College at Oxford University removed her portrait from public display and placed it in storage (The Guardian, Oxford college removes painting of Aung San Suu Kyi from display).

A current local example is the debate about the Margaret Court Arena. When Anna Wintour, Editor-in-Chief of Vogue magazine, gave the keynote address at the Australian Open’s inspirational Series in Melbourne last year, she said:

“Margaret Court was a champion on the court but a meeting point for players of all nations, preferences, and backgrounds should celebrate somebody who was a champion off the court as well.” (ABC News, 25 January 2019)

A school’s governing body should be able to clearly explain its reasons for the decisions it makes to honour people by naming buildings and facilities after them. If a gymnasium or swimming pool is being named after a person of outstanding sporting prowess whose public expression of their personal views is causing division among the community, does the school:

  • say that the recognition is solely for the person’s sporting achievements only, and their personal views are irrelevant?
  • say that the recognition is for the person’s sporting achievements and the school defends a person’s right to freedom of speech, irrespective of whether the school agrees with the person’s views?
  • express a view on the issue?
  • reconsider its position if it turns out that members of the school community are deeply hurt by the person’s views and what they take to be the school’s endorsement of them?


Clear and Transparent Processes for Naming Decisions

It is evident that decisions about honouring people should be made at a high level, preferably by the governing body, and supported by thorough due diligence. Here are some questions to consider:

  • What things can be named? Do you have clear criteria about the level of contribution you would expect for the naming of a campus; a building; a facility such as a hall, gymnasium, swimming pool or oval; a foyer, a wing or a room in a building?
  • Who can be recognised? Former principals and other staff members? Former students? Other people who have given extraordinary service to the school? People of national or international eminence who are known for their achievements in areas that are integral to the school’s philosophy and values?
  • If your school is going to seek contributions from donors in return for naming, how will you balance your approach to naming in honour of someone who has contributed to the school in non-financial ways with your approach to naming buildings and facilities after donors? Will naming rights to donors be available for a specified time or in perpetuity? How will your legal agreement with a donor provide for a subsequent withdrawal of naming rights if the donor acts in a way that is inconsistent with the school’s values?
  • What are your due diligence requirements?


When is it Advisable to Consider Renaming?

When Yale University was debating changing the name of a residential college that had been named for a United States Vice-President who championed slavery (The Washington Post, Yale renames Calhoun College because of historical ties to white supremacy and slavery) the President of Yale initially said that “Retaining the name forces us to learn anew and confront one of the most disturbing aspects of Yale’s and our nation’s past. I believe this is our obligation as an educational institution.” He subsequently commissioned a committee to establish guidance for university leaders about renaming, on the basis that it would be done only in exceptional circumstances. The committee came up with the following principles for considering renaming:

  • whether the person’s principal legacy is fundamentally at odds with the institution’s mission
  • whether that legacy was debated during the person’s life
  • why the person was honoured
  • whether the building or facility has an important role in creating community

It is possible to avoid making difficult decisions that may need to be revisited, by simply giving your school’s buildings letters of the alphabet or numbers. This approach may not appeal to schools that have a tradition of commemorating individuals who have played an important part in the life of the school.



Schools should consider carefully the way they make decisions about naming buildings and facilities, acknowledging the divisive effects on a school community when a building has been named after a person whose attitudes and behaviour are at odds with the community’s values.

Helen Juillerat

Helen is a Legal Research Consultant at CompliSpace. She completed a Bachelor of Laws degree at the University of Queensland and has worked in legal publishing and in roles in the public higher education and health sectors focusing on governance, policy and compliance.