Three days after Penn Alum Steve Wynn (C ’63) was accused of sexual assault, his name was defaced on campus. streaked black paint across the letters that denominated the Commons near Irvine Auditorium. Then the name was boarded up with bricks. University officials removed it from the scholarship he had established and rescinded his honorary degree. Just like that, every visible trace of Wynn’s connection to Penn was erased.
The decision happened in a matter of days. On January 27th 2018, , in which dozens of women came forward accusing Wynn of sexual misconduct. On January 30th, Wynn Commons . A day later, trustees how best to “think and act on behalf of what is best for Penn and our core values.” On February 1st, President Amy Gutmann and Penn Board of Trustees Chair David Cohen to the Penn community, explaining that they had “felt it imperative to examine Mr. Wynn’s recognized presence on Penn’s campus.”
Perhaps it occurred so swiftly because Wynn’s name was so prominent on campus, or because of pressure coming from the #MeToo movement. The University’s response was prompt, but it was also murky, and didn’t clarify how the University plans to address similar naming controversies in the future. Wynn’s is far from the only name that has raised eyebrows—and some of them, the names of slave owners and racists, have been around for centuries. With these, however, the renaming process is slower, and it’s unclear whose responsibility it is. And when the issue of renaming arises, so does the issue of whose name gets on the building to begin with.
Penn’s response to Steve Wynn provoked after , as controversies involving publicly visible alumni tend to do.When a famous graduate—or even an honorary degree holder like Bill Cosby—attains sudden notoriety, an investigation into the university’s connections is sure to follow. This can involve tracking down any named connections to Penn, whether a scholarship, honorary degree, or building that survived their time on campus (in 2016, a Seattle Times reporter in a Weigle Information Commons seminar room). Among other things, it is the name that seems to be the damning detail.
This isn’t the first time a name has changed on campus. In 1992, trustees decided to to the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies following due to its imperialist roots. In December 2015, the Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences announced that , due to the term’s racist history. Since both of these changes would affect academic titles and departments, they were mediated through the Provost.
But when it comes to renaming buildings, it seems more difficult to find a point of contact—or any kind of policy. According to Senior Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations John Zeller, documents outlining “specifics related to the gift and any recognition associated with the gift,” which might include conditions for the name’s removal, aren’t available to the public so as to ensure donor privacy. Naming guidelines in general are difficult to come by.
Today, naming rights are an accepted feature of university philanthropy. Anything that can be funded—buildings, scholarships, faculty positions—can have a donor-chosen name.
Vice Dean for Advancement at the College of Arts and Science Jean-Marie Kneeley posits that when it comes to naming, “there are as many motivations as there are individuals.” There seem to be no limitations on the nobility of those motivations—even if they are students in Van Pelt that have to read your name above a toilet in , as businessman Michael Zinman—who isn’t an alumnus, or in any way connected to Penn—requested in 2005.
In 2008, Logan Hall was renamed Claudia Cohen Hall, in honor of the late gossip columnist. The donation had been made by her ex–husband, billionaire businessman and philanthropist Ronald Perelman, for whom the Perelman Quadrangle is named, whose unprecedented $20 million gift sent a cynical message to the University: if you can afford it, you can have your name on it. The campus reaction to a tabloid journalist getting her name on a building led to uproar—chemistry professor Ponzy Lu that the decision was “totally idiotic.” He added: “I, as an academic, am used to seeing buildings with names like Newton, Copernicus, Darwin.”
In reality, names like Newton, Copernicus, and Darwin are far less likely to exist on Penn’s campus than names like Annenberg, Perelman, and Huntsman. While their interests range from business to communications, what they seem to have in common is philanthropy, and the money for it.
Beyond substantial monetary donation, it’s unclear what guidelines dictate whose name gets a plaque or fellowship at Penn. According to Kneeley, naming rights range in price according to the building.
Kneeley is unsure what criterion is used to determine a donor’s suitability, especially if any “,” like Wynn’s, arise. While faculty-led groups at schools including and have released renaming reports or recommendations, at present there are no such policies at Penn. If there are any in future, they may come from the Penn & Slavery Project, an undergraduate-led research project into Penn’s ties to slavery. In an email statement, Vice President for University Communications Stephen MacCarthy said that it would not be possible to comment on the issue until the Faculty working group releases a report on their findings in the spring. Penn & Slavery Project supervisor Prof. Kathleen Brown confirmed that students in the project might make recommendations about naming, although this isn’t an explicit priority.
According to Public History fellow VanJessica Gladney (C ’18), it’s not that these people’s names should always be removed. She says the problem is that nobody really knows who they are. “I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with people who walk on this campus or have something to do with this campus leaving their mark on this campus,” she says. The issue is in how it’s done—or rather, how it isn’t. Referring specifically to trustees with ties to slavery, she says: “Sometimes you’ll see the plaque and it’ll say something like ‘He was a landowner, or a patriot, or a scientist.’ ‘Slave-owner’ should be there.”
Gladney, Carson Eckhard (C ’21), and Ami Diane (C ’21) are all involved in the Penn & Slavery Project. According to their research, at least ten buildings in the Quad alone are named for figures in American history who were slave owners: Franklin, Hopkinson, Provost-Smith, Cox, Morgan, Morris, Rodney, Wilson, Provost Tower, and Thomas Penn. They suspect that there are more. The discovery isn’t that surprising to them, given what the Penn & Slavery Project has uncovered so far.
The project addresses more than building names. However, renaming in higher education controversies about ties to slavery and racism. Over the past few years in the Ivy League alone, , , and have also been confronting their own pasts, embroiled in student outcry against buildings named for racist or otherwise problematic historical figures.
For buildings with lesser-known names, plaques about the donor are difficult to locate, and provide limited information. A search through the University Archives can provide many of the answers, but that requires actively looking for them. Eckhard believes that the absence of context can be problematic. “It’s really dangerous to just have these buildings and statues randomly throughout campus without really anybody knowing either the good or the bad of those people.”
In most cases, discussing “the good or the bad” is what creates this conversation about names in the first place. Maybe if Claudia Cohen Hall had been renamed after the Penn & Slavery Project began, someone would have pointed out that John Logan of Logan Hall was an unsavory character himself: he had been involved in the slave trade, . And while Cohen may certainly not have been “associated with a pursuit of knowledge,” as , she was the first female Managing Editor of the Daily Pennsylvanian in the 1970s. She’s also one of to have a campus building named after her. Of those, many are named for couples, rather than individual women, and only one seems to be named after a woman of color, Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander.
Alexander’s name graces the K–12 Penn Alexander school, which isn’t on campus but is closely affiliated with the Graduate School of Education. Rather than by donation, her name was chosen through public nominations, which were then voted on and discussed by parents, staff, and Penn students. The suggested that names should be of a “significant person (deceased),” a place, a metaphor, or a combination of these. Guidelines also stated that the name should reflect criteria such as personal achievement, significance to Philadelphia, or diversity in the community.
On campus however, naming a building is rarely such a public affair, and even renaming isn’t always a contentious issue. Gladney notes that the general reaction to Wynn was huge—in part, she suspects, because his victims are alive to talk about his abuse. “Everyone was glad that they were doing the right thing,” she notes. In contrast, she finds that people are much more reluctant to address historical wrongs, including slavery. Although buildings named after slave-owners may be changed in future, the contrast to Wynn’s case and the lack of urgency is worth noting.
Right now, whenever historical context emerges or a scandal breaks, there seems to be no procedure guiding university response. The Penn & Slavery Project working group may be the first to release recommendations. Until then, trustees and high-ranking university officials seem to be the primary deciders on whose name does and does not get the honor of being associated with the school. The guidelines for this—if they exist—aren’t something that others in the school community are privy to.
Two years before Cosby’s degree was revoked, Steve MacCarthy stated that “while the allegations against Mr. Cosby are deeply troubling, it is not our practice to rescind honorary degrees.” The practice referred to doesn’t seem to be publicly available. Of course, granting honorary degrees and granting naming rights are managed by separate offices, but revoking them happens under the Board of Trustees.
The decision to rename Wynn Commons in February came from “a small group composed of trustees, alumni, deans, and faculty.” The trustees also voted to rescind Cosby’s honorary degree, since the allegations against him were comparable to those against Wynn.
Both men had violated the unwritten code dictating whose name would be worthy of association with Penn. The decision had the tone of setting precedent and defining the University’s values—although whatever those values are, they don’t seem to be publicly available right now.
Meerabelle Jesuthasan is a senior from Singapore, studying History.