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Why do we choose to rename some buildings but not others? Should we be renaming buildings at all?

Last month the University got involved in a debate that has been enthralling academia for the past two years - renaming buildings. The University renamed the John Gregory Geology Building to the Molema Building. The University chose to remove the name of a man whose views on “race and racial segregation are completely at odds with the University’s values” to instead honour Dr Molema, a South African doctor and influential African National Congress Member - a fitting substitute for a geology building. 

The change was done with little fanfare as if the University didn’t want to engage in the wider “cancel culture” debate. A statement was released weeks after the new sign had already gone up. Inside though, little has changed; the wall display commemorating Gregory still stands despite the change to the facade. Overall the move feels a little bit tokenistic and not very well thought out, a recurring theme when it comes to Glasgow’s attitudes to naming buildings. 

Not that I want to fall into the trap of whataboutism, but what about James Watt? Stephen Mullen, a historian at the University of Glasgow, has noted that Watt “[was] among the few recorded examples of colonial traders who imported enslaved people — likely on their father’s behalf — for sale in 18th-century Scotland”. The University’s own report on slavery and abolition states “it is certain that Watt profited from slavery and its commerce”. Yet, the University took the decision in 2019 to rename the engineering school, not to remove his name, but to add it. Were his scientific findings so great that we simply ignore his connections with slavery? Or, should we separate the academic and the personal? 

"Not that I want to fall into the trap of whataboutism, but what about James Watt?"

I think this demonstrates two common occurrences that make no sense when it comes to renaming buildings. Firstly, we seem to hold the giants of STEM to a different standard; their work often becomes disconnected from their personal life and we merely acknowledge their inventions. Secondly, we tend to scapegoat certain individuals depending on how they are perceived in wider society.

In the past three years we have honoured James McCune Smith, the first African American to hold a medicine degree, and renamed the Gregory Building in turn to honour Silas Molema, showing a move towards acknowledging those who have gone unappreciated in the past. But, the University have also honoured James Watt, someone who we know profited from the slave trade. In all, I’m just a little confused. 

I don’t actually agree with renaming buildings because I think the space in question (in this case, campus) should be a reflection of how attitudes develop. The interplay between the McCune Smith Learning Hub, representing our current attitudes, alongside the Gregory Building, which was named in the 50s, demonstrate the progress our University has made over the years. However, the University (or society at large) shows no consistency in current naming practices, making this “progress” appear superficial. 

Going forward it would surely make sense to decide upon a clear framework, like the University of Bristol has done, before we embark on name changes. Our campus should be a patchwork of developing ideas and values. 


1 reply on “What’s the deal with renaming buildings?”

Matthew Staitis says:

Now where was this author when the university was making these decisions?! – left old buildings and name new buildings appropriately – sound thinking!

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