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Editorial: Evans’ name should be removed from campus buildings

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Northwestern’s difficulties with inclusivity are well documented and continue today. But nowhere does the past permeate into the present more than in the University’s inability to foster a fully inclusive environment for its Native American students, who to date still represent just a sliver — 1 percent — of the student body.

The University’s failure here is most visibly reflected in its resistance to acquiesce to the Native American and Indigenous Student Alliance’s requests to remove University founder John Evans’ name from campus buildings, including the Alumni Center. Though NU’s Board of Trustees has endorsed recommendations by the Native American Outreach and Inclusion Task Force, it decided in June not to remove the Evans name from buildings and from a room in Norris University Center.

In the three years since NU launched its Native American Inclusion Initiative, the University created the Native American Leadership Council and named the inaugural director of the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research. Though all these efforts represent steps toward a more inclusive NU, their impact is diminished by the celebration of Evans’ memory in other University programs, scholarships and buildings.

The question of whether to remove the Evans name may be complicated, but the fact that it remains unresolved ultimately boils down to institutional inertia. Nearly two years after NAISA formally requested its removal, Evans’ name still clings to campus buildings.

Evans was the territorial governor of Colorado when John Chivington, a Civil War colonel, led an attack against Cheyenne and Arapaho camps, killing an estimated 150 people, the majority of them women and children. Though the NU task force concluded Evans was not directly involved in the planning of the massacre, another study conducted by the University of Denver — also founded by Evans — laid much of the blame at his feet.

Reminders of flawed historical figures loom in our current political climate, and it remains clear their veneration reflects and furthers the oppression of minority groups in the U.S. Fresh off the summer of Charlottesville, Virginia, there has been a renewed focus on, and acknowledgment of, the harm in memorializing such figures.

It’s time to turn that focus on our own campus.

Yes, names and memorials change meaning with time. Surely, not all who pass our university’s Alumni Center or who see the marble bust of Evans contained within consider the shadow his name casts. But some do, and University leadership can embrace their requests while using the removal of his name from NU property as a teaching moment. This is an opportunity to show that we as a university stand united against symbols of hate, racism and violence.

All students on our campus should take up this cause. When the conversation about Evans’ name resurfaces, some of us have the privilege to turn our attention away and focus on something else. But members of our community who are affected by Evans’ presence do not get the opportunity to ignore it.

These questions are not always easy conversations or decisions — they have played out dramatically on campuses from Harvard to Texas and from Princeton to Yale. And their resolution can raise further questions. Just as the scuttling of memorials to Confederate leaders leads to reconsidering the honoring of Northern slave owners, pulling Evans’ name from buildings will lead to further conversations regarding his influence. We may be led to contemplate the fact that our city is named after Evans, or to look at other buildings on campus with names celebrating flawed figures.

Those, too, are questions worth engaging, and taking Evans’ name off campus buildings won’t provide answers in one sweep. University administrators must be held accountable for the inclusion of all students.

Likewise, removing Evans’ name from University buildings and scholarships would not erase what he did or stop future generations from learning about his actions. It certainly wouldn’t make our university’s Native American students forget.

It will serve as a step, however symbolic, to show the University values all its students. That’s a worthwhile cause. NU can take that step while still critically engaging with and reflecting on our history.

This piece represents the majority opinion of the Editorial Board of The Daily Northwestern. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members or Editorial Board members of The Daily Northwestern.