The Dumbest College Renaming Debate Yet

Even if you think buildings should be renamed because of historical figures’ racism, what about a building dedicated to an admirable man whose name just happens also to be a despicable act?

The student-led campaigns at colleges across the country to rename buildings, schools, and monuments named for racist and other now-controversial figures have become one of the year’s most notable campus trends.

There is the proposal to rename Amherst College’s Lord Jeff (unofficial) mascot for Lord Jeffery Amherst’s role in spreading smallpox to Native Americans, Yale’s Calhoun College because politician John Calhoun was a staunch supporter of slavery, and even the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University because Wilson is now seen as a racist.

But the latest renaming controversy at Pennsylvania’s Lebanon Valley College has a special ring of absurdity to it.

Students there are seeking to have Lynch Memorial Hall renamed because of the word “lynch” in its name—in this case they deem the word itself is so historically associated with vicious racism it must be changed.

The renaming bid has nothing to do with the gentleman who the building is named after, and who is guilty of no heinous cultural crime—indeed, his reputation emanates quite the opposite.

Clyde A. Lynch, the school’s former president, oversaw the school through the Great Depression and World War II.

Lynch not only led Lebanon Valley College through times of war and national poverty, he was active in helping refugees settle in the U.S. following World War II, said Marty Parkes, the executive director of marketing and communications at Lebanon Valley College.

According to the school’s obituary for Lynch—shared with The Daily Beast by Tom Hanrahan, director of editorial standards and brand messaging at Lebanon Valley College—Lynch served as chairman of the Pennsylvania Commission on Displaced Persons and as the national chairman of the Commission on the Resettlement of Displaced Persons with Professional Skills to “rende[r] exceptional service to suffering humanity.”

Renaming Lynch Memorial Hall was one of the student demands for changes to improve “inclusive excellence” at a college community meeting last Friday night, according to Parkes.

“I’d like to emphasize it was one of several issues,” Parkes told The Daily Beast. “That [renaming] has attracted the most attention, but it was one of only many discussed.”

Despite the fact that Lynch is a fairly common last name—including, as Colin Deppen at PennLive pointed out, that of the first African American female U.S. Attorney General, Loretta Lynch—some students at Lebanon Valley College want Lynch Memorial Hall to be renamed.

“I think it has to do with the historical association of it [“lynch”], the word as a verb, not as a name of a person,” Parkes said. “I think it creates feelings of discomfort in some quarters.”

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Parkes said that some students said they would feel better if the building was renamed to include Lynch’s full name, Clyde A. Lynch.

While recent debates about renaming statues and buildings, especially on college campuses, have tapped into larger concerns about grappling with the complexities of history and reconciling the flaws of our former leaders, there is no such intellectual merit when it comes to students’ desire to rename Lynch Memorial Hall: It is merely discomfort over homonyms.

In fact, one would have thought students might have been proud of this particular building’s name and lineage.

According to a report in PennLive, the Lynch renaming issue at Lebanon Valley College came up after “a week of demonstrations calling for changes,” including a “more diverse curriculum to facilities recognizing varied gender identities and disabilities.”

Parkes said the students presented a list that included around 15 demands, but he declined to share the specific list with The Daily Beast. He indicated that decision was out of respect for students’ desire to keep out news outlets.

“We’re not sharing that. That’s being treated internally,” he said. “They [students] actually requested media not be present. They wanted it to be a campus, community discussion.”

Like the call for renaming, this apparent desire to block or restrict media coverage echoes sentiments at other campuses.

At the University of Missouri, students formed a human chain during the November protests, shouted “No media, Safe Space” and pushed and shoved reporters.

The Daily Beast reached out to some of the students who spoke at the meeting, according to a report on PennLive, including the president of the school’s Black Student Union, Tamara Baldwin. While Baldwin initially agreed to speak, she did not respond to calls by press time.

“We do not operate in a vacuum,” Parkes said. “With the way news travels, they [students] are very aware of what goes on at other campuses. It encourages them to speak up and let those views be known.”

But while there may be at least intelligible arguments for renaming monuments or buildings when they’re a tribute to racist, homophobic, sexist, anti-Semitic figures, renaming a building because the name sounds like a word with a historical association of perpetuating fear and racism is hard to comprehend as necessary or beneficial.

“We’re very respectful of the dialogue,” Parkes said, though he also noted “listening carefully doesn’t mean you necessarily agree with everything you hear.”

When asked how likely it was that Lebanon Valley College would rename Lynch Memorial Hall, Parkes said he “can’t speculate.”

He did add: “I think it’s fair to say Clyde Lynch was a major and positive figure in the history of this college, and his presence and contributions here will continue to be recognized.”