What’s in a name? The politics of naming Durham’s newest college

By Rhodri Sheldrake Davies

Durham University recently decided to exercise full control over the branding of its 17th college, rejecting Durham Students’ Union’s proposal to have it named after a notable female alumnus or local figure. Instead, the University suggested that, rather, it would be fitting to name the college after a wealthy donor.

This prompted an outcry from the student body and academics alike, with the launch of a Durham Students’ Union petition to the University Vice-Chancellor Stuart Corbridge (now signed by over 2,000 people), the signing of a letter of opposition by 36 JCR presidents and SU reps, as well as a ‘College McCollegeface’ naming campaign to lobby the University on the issue. But why do names matter so much? Is this kick-back really justified?

But why do names matter so much?

It’s vital to consider the ramifications of the University’s choice to name its facilities after wealthy alumni. This has been a mainstay of many universities in recent years, yet has often been highly controversial. For example, Durham University recently came under fire for naming the building for the School of Government and International Affairs after the controversial Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al-Qasimi, the ruler of a UAE emirate accused of human rights abuses.

Nevertheless, this is not to suggest that there is anything inherently wrong with universities having wealthy donors. Many alumni look back very fondly on their time in higher education and want to give back. Similarly, it can’t be denied that many wealthy alumni have done great things that deserve to be acknowledged.

However, the naming of our educational institutions should be based on more than just how much cash they’re prepared to hand over. Universities hold common a foundational purpose to promote academic excellence and social contributions through the furthering of knowledge, and this should be at the core of their outlook when naming their institutions and buildings.

The naming of our educational institutions should be based on more than just how much cash they’re prepared to hand over.

Purely being concerned with financial clout sets a dangerous precedent for the outlooks of universities, students and academics. Considering wealth to be an accurate gauge of societal involvement or accountability is a backwards idea, rooted in a warped understanding of society, which puts financial gain above other, often far more productive contributions, such as those in the fields of academia, the arts, sciences, or elsewhere. That’s without mentioning that this may well lead to a pernicious sole focus on the financial situation of graduates, which would only lead to the further commercialisation of our education system.

And it’s not just the issue of wealth: representation is also an absolutely vital point to be raised when discussing whom we dedicate our institutions and buildings to. This, to some, may be seen as virtue-signalling; in truth, it’s quite the opposite. It’s absolutely right that, when the nationwide university population is now majority female, the successes of these women, and those in the past, be identified and publicised. This will help represent more accurately those who occupy our institutions and challenge the stereotypes that persist in academia.

In the case of naming Durham’s 17th college, it is not difficult to compile a list of incredible female alumni: Ella Bryant, its first female degree recipient; Dorothea Ruth Etchells, the poet and principal; the Rt Hon Dr Mo Mowlam, who oversaw the signing of the Good Friday Peace agreement; Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the poet and anti-slavery advocate; or Dame Margot Fonteyn, the ballet dancer and former University Chancellor.

It’s vital we protect our traditions and our values; the naming of institutions is at the core of this.

We should also not forget the significance of names in the formation of communities. Something as simple as a name or a motto is tied to the very core of identity. Durham’s current colleges and buildings are named after a variety of remarkable people, from Prince Bishops, to clergy, to notable academics, and these names have shaped their identities: for example, St Cuthbert’s Society has become known for promoting solidarity, St Chad’s College for promoting Charity, Josephine Butler for its progressive outlook, the Bill Bryson Library for promoting intellectual thought and creativity, and the Ogden Centre for sitting at the cutting edge of scientific research. As Megan Croll, Durham SU’s president, stated: “I find it embarrassing that our 16 colleges, named after people who have achieved great things, or are renowned in history, could be followed by colleges simply named after someone who is willing to cough up enough cash.”

It’s vital we protect our traditions and our values; the naming of institutions is at the core of this. The very identity of a campus, or an institution, is formed by the names we give to it. Our universities should not forget their histories or the influence that these names can have. Here, Durham has an opportunity to set a precedent for recognising merit over money.

Photograph: William Flannery via Flickr

2 Responses

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  1. nemo
    Apr 14, 2018 - 01:32 PM

    This is not a new phenomenon by any means. Go and look at the foundation dates of Oxford and Cambridge colleges. Then look at the names they have, and where they came from.

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  2. JJB
    Apr 20, 2018 - 06:09 PM

    You can complain if you want, but you’re not going to be listened to. The letter from the Vice Chancellor and Council Chair makes that pretty clear – this is a decision which has already made and, for better or worse, it does not matter what the student body (or academic community) think.

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