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The University of Maryland Board of Regents voted last week to change the name of the school’s football stadium, a decision that concurred with University President Wallace Loh’s recommendations, as well as with the sentiment of a significant portion of the university’s student body, including the editorial board of the student-run campus newspaper.
The change, from Byrd Stadium to Maryland Stadium, stems from one reason: because former UMD President Harry Clifton “Curley” Byrd was an ardent segregationist who actively worked during his tenure as president to keep the university “separate but equal”—or, more accurately, free of black students and faculty.
It’s a remarkable move, the culmination of years of attempts, and it’s almost impossible to look at it without thinking of the region’s other major “is-it-racist?” name controversy.
As someone who believes that the NFL franchise should go ahead and change their name, it would be easy for me to simply point at the UMD decision and say “See? That wasn’t so hard.”
But what’s truly impressive about the way this has been handled—particularly by Loh since he took on the issue—is how cleanly and effectively his letter to the campus community and recommendations to the board directly addressed the most common objections to changing the NFL team’s name. It’s pretty clear that Loh’s research and the assessment from his workgroup generated a discussion very similar to the one that Washington NFL fans seem to have every time this topic comes up. Here are those general discussion points:
1) It was OK for years! Why change it now? Byrd died in 1970, so neither his views nor his actions have evolved. The impetus for the change—or, more accurately, the impetus for the most recent and most successful attempt to implement this change—was a confluence of racially-charged events last year. Those events include the unrest in Baltimore and a leaked, racist email that brought all the wrong kinds of national attention to College Park.
“The world has changed,” Loh writes in his letter. “The values that prevailed during the first half of the 20th century no longer define our nation and UMD in the 21st century.”
2) It’s meant to honor someone! One of Loh’s recommendations to the board—the first one, in fact—is to create a memorial to Byrd in “a suitable and visible location inside one of our main University libraries.” This ensures that Byrd’s undeniably enormous contributions to creating the modern University of Maryland will continue to be recognized, but with the benefit of added context, detail, and explanation.
“As an institution of learning,” Loh writes in his recommendation, “we are duty-bound to memorialize his complete legacy.”
3) It’s a slippery slope of political correctness run amok! What are you going to rename next?!? The second of Loh’s recommendations is to announce a five-year moratorium on other honorific renamings. The argument implicit in this recommendation is that the name of the stadium is important enough to change, even if that means locking down other problematic names.
The stadium, Loh writes in his letter, is “the ‘front porch’ of the institution, not the most important part of the educational house, but the most visible one”; this disproportionate visibility (like that enjoyed by, say, an NFL team) is reason enough to motivate a change.
4) It’s just a name! This is one of the more reductive arguments you’ll hear, and Loh dismisses it handily. “Symbols matter,” Loh writes in his recommendation. “Monuments, battle flags, and building names elicit deep emotions, positive and negative. They help us recognize truths about our past and affirm the values by which we live today. The Byrd name has acquired that power.”
5) There are bigger problems to be solved! Changing a stadium name won’t end racism, no more than changing a team name will end the many problems Native Americans confront today. But the issue can be used as a springboard, which leads to Loh’s third recommendation: a campus-wide diversity initiative “to help bridge the divides on our campus (and in the nation at large) and spur meaningful institutional change.”
The change was not easy; the board was split 12–5 in favor of the change, a solid majority but certainly not unanimity. But it was necessary, and the university, spurred by activist students and a climate of unrest, was wise to recognize that.
Dan Snyder, owner of the local NFL franchise, briefly attended UMD, but left at the age of 20 without completing his course of study. Maybe if he had stuck around he would’ve learned how to handle a much-needed name change with relative swiftness and grace.
Follow Matt Terl on Twitter @Matt_Terl.
Photo by Mr.schultz / Creative Commons