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Racist symbol? Why Maryland's Byrd Stadium may be renamed. (+video)

The debate over former president 'Curley' Byrd, a major leader in the University of Maryland's history and a segregationist, mirrors similar debates pitting institutions' history versus their present-day values at campuses across America. 

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    From left, University of Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson, University President Wallace Loh and football head coach D.J. Durkin pose after Durkin's introduction as the new football coach on December 3. President Loh has endorsed calls to rename the school's Byrd Stadium, where the football team competes, because of its namesake's racist views.
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University of Maryland President Wallace Loh has endorsed decades of calls from students to rename the Big Ten university's Byrd Stadium out of concern over the segregationist views espoused by the man it is named after.

In a letter to the school's Board of Regents, who will vote on the measure this Friday, Dr. Loh recommends calling the 50,000-spectator field "Maryland Stadium."

Maryland is just one of a growing list of colleges debating what, exactly, is in a name. From the University of North Carolina to Yale, students and faculty are questioning the wisdom of keeping building names that honor past leaders or alumni with racist views or policies, part of a sweeping, reignited national movement to openly address bias on college campuses. While some argue that building names canonize their eponyms, others accuse protestors of whitewashing history, rather than grappling with it.

"'The past is never dead. It’s not even past,'" Loh quoted from author and Nobel Prize laureate William Faulkner in a letter to the Board of Regents, adding "History is not about the past. It concerns today’s debates about the past," and warning the community not to fall into "presentism," judging historical figures solely through modern mores. 

Harry Clifton “Curley” Byrd, the University's president from 1936 to 1954, oversaw a major expansion at the school and helped develop the school's top-notch athletics program before leaving the University for a political career. He was a segregationist who adamantly opposed allowing black students on campus until he was forced to, by court order, in 1951. 

Saying that "symbols matter," Loh recommends changing the name. However, he also urged three further changes: a permanent library exhibition to honor Byrd's role as a "Father and Builder" of the school, a five-year moratorium on further renaming changes on campus, and a "move from symbolic change to institutional improvements," beginning with an all-campus "Maryland Dialogues on Diversity and Community" series this spring. 

Before announcing his decision, Loh commissioned a working group to study the stadium dilemma. A name change was also recommended by the Student Government Association in a 13-2 vote. 

For many students and alumni, Loh wrote, Byrd Stadium was more than a symbol of past inequality: the "pursuit of inclusion and equal opportunity remains unfinished" today.

Although campuses around the country have debated whether to remove statues and other tributes to now frowned-upon figures, such debates have picked up steam as part of larger campus movements this fall, including motions to rename Yale's Calhoun College, Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Wilson College, UNC's Saunders Hall, and, at Amherst College, a push to replace the traditional Lord Jeffery Amherst mascot with a moose – or just about anything else – after it was revealed that the real Lord Jeff had sanctioned sending smallpox-infected blankets to Native Americans in 1763. 

As such controversies spread, so do qualms about the efficacy, and ethics, of symbolic changes.

"I just don’t think that changing the mascot is going to alter what has been done historically," one 1973 Amherst alum at the homecoming game told moose supporters, according to the New York Times.

At Princeton, a petition with nearly 1,800 signatures against the proposed Wilson name change calls it "an alarming call for historical revisionism." 

In a November essay, New Yorker editor Joshua Rothman takes up what is called "dissonant heritage," or as he says, "heritage that is now unwanted": the pesky difficulty of unsavory history too big, or too visible, to be ignored. Mr. Rothman argues that "dissonant heritage" takes on a special role at the nation's elite universities, which often stand as carefully-constructed monuments to a certain American ideal – an ideal that embraces free speech and academic inquiry, but whose finer points are subject to fierce argument. 

"For two hundred years, these universities have used their campuses to create an unreal vision of American history. They should start thinking about what an honest vision might look like," Rothman offers. 

The Byrd controversy "illustrate the ideal and the challenge now roiling American campuses everywhere: to reconcile racial justice and free expression," Maryland's President Loh writes. "This clash of competing ideas and values does not undermine an institution of learning. It strengthens it."

The theme of worthwhile debate and empathy is also underscored in an email to the Amherst College community from President Carolyn "Biddy" Martin: 

True intellectual community is the coming together of people from different backgrounds with different points of view, who share the love of learning and reasoned debate; who are committed not only to individual success, but the good of the whole; and who can allow themselves and others to be less than perfect. In a country that stands for freedom and equality of opportunity, we all have a responsibility to do what we can to combat systemic forms of discrimination and bias.

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