After a semester of research and public polling, the University Naming Committee will meet Wednesday to have a final discussion on whether to recommend the revision or retention of the Douglas Hall name.
The Naming Committee was tasked by University President David Glassman in the Fall semester with determining the proper course of action and making a recommendation to him and the President’s Council about whether to rename the controversial residence hall.
Since then, the committee has met biweekly for the entirety of the Spring semester to discuss the best course of action on the matter. The Naming Committee consists of 7 members from different on-campus groups including Faculty, Student and Staff Senate, and is directed by ex-officio convener Dr. Ken Wetstein.
Douglas Hall, commonly referred to alongside its sister building Lincoln Hall, is named after Stephen Douglas, a participant in the historic 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates. Douglas is a former senator from Illinois who is historically regarded as a racist.
Douglas debated Lincoln on the possibility that new Western states added to the Union be allowed to determine on their own whether to allow slavery through popular sovereignty. Lincoln argued that new states should be allowed to be slave states.
The halls were named after both men involved in the debates to commemorate an important piece of Charleston history, as one of the several events that took place in the town in 1858.
Many members of the Eastern and Charleston communities now find the commemoration of Douglas through a building name to be problematic given the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020, while others say that to change the name of the building is to erase Charleston’s history.
This controversy is at the center of the research that the Naming Committee has done this semester.
“We’ve had feedback in the form of public comments, we’ve had feedback in the form of personal letters either through email or snail mail, we’ve had the seven forums, and we’ve had the 1000 responses to the survey,” Wetstein said.
Wetstein also mentioned the various content shared with the committee by people with historical background.
“We had the professor from Ball State University,” Wetstein said, in reference to Dr. Nicole Etcheson, a history professor who spoke with the committee at their last meeting. “We’ve also had a number of items forwarded to us from Bill Furry with the Illinois State Historical Society.”
The upcoming meeting will likely be the committee’s last for the semester, barring extreme circumstances that require an additional meeting during finals week. As a result, this will likely be the last chance that the committee has to vote on the Douglas Hall situation before the end of the semester.
This does not necessarily guarantee a vote is going to happen, however.
“If someone is ready and they make a proposal, that may come forward, they may vote on it, they may table it – it’s impossible for me to judge,” Wetstein said.
If the committee votes in favor of renaming the hall, there will still be more steps in the process before that decision is made by the university. A “rename” verdict means that the decision must go before President Glassman and his council, and then, if he was to approve it, the final decision goes to the Board of Trustees. The next Board of Trustees meeting is scheduled for late June.
Even if the renaming is approved by the Naming Committee, the President, and the Board of Trustees, one question still remains unanswered: What will the new name of Douglas Hall be?
The question of the Douglas Hall name has been visited twice before, once in 2010 and once in 2017. Both times, the decision was put before the Naming Committee, along with a suggested new name.
In 2010, the proposed renaming was “Douglass Hall”, to commemorate Frederick Douglass, a renowned abolitionist and publisher of The North Star. In 2017, the proposed renaming would have changed both Lincoln and Douglas Halls to “Lincoln-Douglas Debate Hall East” and “Lincoln-Douglas Debate Hall West”, to commemorate the debates without commemorating the man himself.
Both times, the Naming Committee voted to retain the existing name. This time, however, there is no newly proposed name. Another round of decision-making must be done, provided a “rename” verdict is passed.
This could be done by either the Naming Committee or the President, depending on the decisions made by involved parties at the time.
“It would not have to come back to the Naming Committee, but I think the president of the University would have quite a bit of discretion about how he would want to handle the naming process,” Wetstein said. “I have had no conversations with him about where that would go, so I really don’t even have a sense of where his head’s at on that.”
The committee is meeting at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday. Participants, observers, interested media, and those wishing to make public comment can join the meeting. Public comments will be limited to three minutes per individual and a total of 20 minutes for all public comments.
Public comments may also be submitted in written form to Vice President for University Advancement Dr. Wetstein’s email: [email protected]
John Wills can be reached at 581-2812 or at [email protected]