July 13, 2010
William Powers Jr., president of The University of Texas at Austin, announced that he will propose renaming the university's Simkins Residence Hall to Creekside Dormitory.
According to an article from the university's Office of Public Affairs, the residence hall was built in the 1950s to house male law and graduate students and was named after William Stewart Simkins. Simkins taught at the School of Law from 1899 to 1929 and had ties to the Ku Klux Klan.
CNN reports that before becoming a professor at the University of Texas, Simkins helped organize the Florida branch of the Ku Klux Klan and often advocated his affiliation with the Klan to his students.
Controversy over the dorm's name came after former University of Texas law professor, Tom Russell, published a scholarly paper on Simkin's past. The research led to public discussion on the appropriateness of naming a university building after a Klan leader, says Inside Higher Ed. Russell's paper focused on the 1950s, when UT resisted integration. After the ruling of Sweatt v. Painter, the school was ordered to admit an African American law student, which was a key step towards desegration at UT. However, because the university could no longer rely on de jure segregation to exclude African American students, the school began creating new ways to intimidate African Americans. This led UT to name the residence hall after Simkins. Russell said, "The memory and history of Professor Simkins supported the university's resistance to integration."
Now, UT Office of Public Affairs reports that a 21-member advisory group formed by Gregory J. Vincent, vice president for diversity and engagement at UT, is urging Powers to rename the building because it "compromises public trust and the university's reputation". Furthermore, Vincent says that "having a hall honorifically named for a founder of the Florida KKK is inconsistent with the core values of this university and with President Powers' strategic goal to increase diversity on campus".
Inside Higher Ed points out that this practice is common among other colleges and universities. Some universities have renamed such buildings. The University of Oklahoma's chemistry building was once named for a longtime faculty member who was a Klan member until protests broke out in the 1980s. Some universities tried to change the names, but were blocked. Vanderbilt University wanted to drop the word "Confederate" from their Confederate Memorial Hall, but was denied. The court said the school had committed to the name when it accepted a gift from the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Students have been divided on the issue. Some feel the names are ironic and that schools should not allow any name that makes a group feel uncomfortable. Others do not agree. Jillian Underwood, a UT senior, told CNN affiliate KXAN that the name change would create more controversy. "...Are we going to draw the line on the KKK, or are we going to take it all the way and get rid of everything? That would significantly change the campus," she argues.
Russell told Inside Higher Ed that certain associations should not be honored at colleges and universities. However, he does not argue for the renaming of every building that was named after someone whose ideas are now considered inappropriate. Rather, he wants the history of these honors to be openly discussed and debated. "For the most part, people had no idea who [Simkins] was, but some faculty knew exactly who he was. He adds that "whom we choose to honor is an important thing for society and important for universities" and recommends that universities include "professional historians" in the discussion and not rely on general depictions.
Compiled by Heidi M. Agustin
"Removing an Honor," insidehighered.com, July 12, 2010, Scott Jaschik
"University of Texas at Austin President Will Propose Removal of Simkins Name from Residence Hall," utexas.edu, July 9, 2010
"University of Texas may change dorm name that honors Klansman," CNN.com, July 12, 2010, CNN Wire Staff