Will the name of Huxley College be changed on a pretext?

Viking mascot
Western Washington University mascot. You may see their Viking ship here, toward the bottom. Credit: Wikipedia. Fair Use.

The Board of Trustees of Huxley College met the day before yesterday, September 17, solely to discuss renaming the college . According to a source whom I prefer to leave anonymous,*

[T]he consensus seems to be to drop the Huxley name. They acknowledge that there was lots of information submitted both in support of and opposed to dropping the Huxley name. They acknowledge that Huxley did lots of great stuff both as a scientist and as a strong abolitionist and a defender of universal human rights, and in expanding educational opportunities for a diverse audience. However, they were troubled by some of the bigoted and sexist language that Huxley made at times. They also point out that Huxley had no real links to the Pacific Northwest or North America. Fair point. It sounds like they just don’t have the stomach to deal with the blowback of rejecting the Legacy Review Task Force. No decision but it seems clear where they want to go.

They then went on the discuss Mathes and Haggard [two dormitories]. They are not inclined to reject these two, in spite of the majority recommendation of the Task Force to do so, and made comments along the line that “you should judge people based on the standards and language used in their time, not by modern standards.” Interesting that they are not inclined to use the same standard for Huxley. They want to judge him based on modern standards.

It is curious that they only now discovered that Huxley had no direct connection to their area. If I wanted to be suspicious, I might suspect that they plan to change the name of the college on a pretext.

Another source thought it was

[a] very sad and embarrassing spectacle all around.

It started well enough, with written comments from the student board member who couldn’t be there. His comments were read/summarized by the chair. He expressed concern with the Task Force report and the impact it would have on the academic reputation of the university. He also seemed concerned with a “purity” test that was being applied to Huxley.

From there I couldn’t tell which Board member was speaking, so I’ll just refer to them generically in the order in which they spoke.

The first Board member obviously felt uncomfortable with the racism claims in the Task Force report and sought to distance the Board from them by suggesting a wholly different reason for changing the name: that Huxley had no real historic connection to WWU. On that principle alone she said she was prepared to dename the college.

President Randhawa supported this, saying the key principle should be a direct connection to the university. Huxley's contributions pro and con are moot if relationship to the university is the main criterion.

It was all downhill from there.

The next board member said that denaming would have a de minimis impact on T.H. Huxley’s reputation because WWU is a regional university, so it wasn’t as if an organization with a national or international reputation made such a name change. He said there was a high cost in defending the name with little return. He accused Huxley of being an early eugenicist, and claimed that he had no connection to public education institutions like Huxley College. He called Huxley’s reputation “controversial.”

The next board member recognized that she was talking from an emotional perspective. She repeated the creationist trope that Huxley advocated a hierarchical theory of race and, because of that, going to a school named after him reminded her of the harm caused by going to a high school in Baltimore named after Roger B. Taney, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who wrote the Dred Scott decision. So in short, she compared Huxley’s legacy to Taney's.

Sensing the overwhelming sentiment, the Board chair than suggested that they needed to start thinking through how they were going to communicate the thought process behind their decision.

Another Board member asked if they need more input, more process. The chair restated this, asking if they needed to rehear the case? The response overall from several board members was no, there was plenty of opportunity for input.

One Board member suggested voting at the October meeting. The president suggested it would be better to do so at the December meeting, or it will look like it was all worked out in advance. Several others concurred and suggested that the October meeting focus on communicating the rationale for the denaming.

So in summary, they totally bought the creationist narrative in the Task Force report. I was embarrassed for them, for WWU, and for my own association with WWU.

Another source observed that, when a committee was appointed,

usually the decision on the path forward had already been made. We were part of the required process. But I do think all that work did make a difference.

Universities in Washington are essentially non-regulatory State Agencies and therefore policy making political bodies. The process here is clearly political, and the members of the Board are political appointees. It does now appear that at least some of the members of the Board are realizing the significance of the misinformation presented by the Huxley section of the report. Without our efforts [I think he refers to comments submitted to the task force and the article Reconsider cancel-culture target at WWU in the Seattle Times, and maybe even the earlier articles in PT] the motion to change the name would have been presented and passed at yesterday’s and certainly by October’s Board meeting. [At least we have gotten their attention, and] the Board and the President are now looking for ways to remove the name of Huxley from the college without claiming social injustice or racism. The Seattle Times piece stated that there may be other reasons for removing Huxley as the name of the college, but that the racist and injustice charges were not true. Perhaps that is where they are thinking of going now.

Perhaps amusingly, the Task Force also discussed changing the name of the Viking Union, which I assume is the student union. The Viking is also the mascot of the University’s sports teams. Footnote 49 in their report tells you more than you want to know about the choice of the Viking mascot. If nothing else, the Task Force seems concerned that “Vikings have been romanticized by white supremacist groups as icons of conquest,” and white supremacists have been active on campus. One final source said that

they seemed pretty resigned to the idea that that name would eventually change also. There was some comment along the lines that any group of people has probably done something awful to someone else at some point, probably true.

* I have cited several sources and I have tacit permission to quote them, but I have left them anonymous to protect them from any possible retaliation. I have lightly edited their comments, for example, by replacing initialisms with full spellings when appropriate.