Kiel: After Schill’s inaugural address, it’s time to rename John Evans Alumni Center

Doug Kiel, Op-Ed Contributor

Michael H. Schill’s inauguration as the 17th President of Northwestern University Friday has reignited an ongoing conversation about one of the University’s founders, John Evans. During his inaugural address, President Schill described Evans as “a man who some say was a visionary, and others say committed unforgivable crimes against Native Americans in Colorado.”

In 1864, the Sand Creek Massacre led to the brutal killing of more than 150 peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho villagers, mostly women and children, by U.S. soldiers. Evans, then governor and superintendent of Indian Affairs of the Colorado Territory, indirectly facilitated this atrocity. The Native American and Indigenous Student Alliance (NAISA) has urged the removal of Evans’ name from the Alumni Center, arguing its presence tacitly approves violence against Indigenous peoples. This obstructs future opportunities for what President Schill referred to as “engagement across difference” in his inauguration address.

As each year passes, calls for a response to Evans’ crimes — coupled with heightened advocacy for Indigenous inclusion — gain resonance. Recently, student journalists at Evanston Township High School produced an eight-part, in-depth study on Evans’ legacy.  

Over a decade has elapsed since NU stopped celebrating Founders Day in 2013. Yet, Evans’ name still remains highly visible  on campus, and therefore, occupies a position of respect. In 2017, despite the Native American Outreach and Inclusion Task Force’s recommendation to remove Evans’ name from the building, the Board of Trustees chose inaction. This non-response prompted students to spray paint “F–k John Evans” on the Rock two years later, during the 2019 homecoming weekend. 

As members of the Northwestern community gather at the John Evans Alumni Center this weekend, they find themselves in a building named after a man implicated in genocide. This stark reality necessitates reconciling the University’s current principles with its historical origins. President Schill, in his inaugural address, noted that “our moment today is not like that of our founders,” underscoring the University’s commitment to diversity and inclusivity. Nonetheless, the ongoing commemoration of Evans, a figure tied to one of the darkest moments in United States history, should not be overlooked. This contradiction calls for prompt resolution.

In 2020, an ad hoc committee chaired by then-Board Chairman J. Landis Martin chose not to reassess the Board’s earlier decision. Landis argued that Evans’ actions didn’t necessitate the removal of his name from the building. Shockingly, he deemed Evans’ life “exemplary” and warned against setting a “bad precedent” by erasing his name. However, Colorado authorities took a different stance, voting to rename Mount Evans and revoke his honor. 

As Colorado moves forward with this renaming process, our university remains at an impasse. The annual Sand Creek Massacre commemorations are now symbolically held on the front lawn of the Evans Center, marking an act of Indigenous reclamation.

Three years have passed since Landis’ misguided remarks, and the current Board chair, Peter Barris, has yet to publicly address this issue. President Schill’s inauguration remarks emphasizing diversity and inclusion now pose a question for Chairman Barris and the Board of Trustees: when will the John Evans Alumni Center be renamed?

If the university genuinely embraces difference, as President Schill suggests, NU’s commitment must reach beyond words and into action. Renaming the John Evans Alumni Center would offer a concrete demonstration of NU’s dedication to Indigenous inclusion, healing and reciprocity. As a globally respected institution, NU bears the responsibility to confront historical injustices. Removing Evans’ name from the Alumni Center does not erase history, but it does respond to it. Such an action would honor the Cheyenne and Arapaho victims and descendants of the Sand Creek Massacre and foster a more welcoming environment for Native American students, faculty, staff and visitors.

If Colorado can rename a mountain, NU should certainly be capable of renaming a building. The time for change is now.

Doug Kiel is an Assistant Professor of History and a citizen of the Oneida Nation. Kiel can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.