The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Gerry Broome/AP)

For years, students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have been asking school leaders to change the name of Saunders Hall, named after a former trustee who was a leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

Last month, some stood outside the building with nooses around their necks and signs such as “THIS is what SAUNDERS would do to ME.”

On Wednesday, the public university’s board of trustees responded, with an invitation: It asked to hear from students, faculty, alumni and others. A student leader wrote this:

At many colleges, officials are struggling with how to balance a school’s history with the views of the people who live and work there now.

William Saunders was a colonel in the Confederate army; when he later served as secretary of state he took steps to publish the colonial records of North Carolina. Decades later, UNC officials decided to honor that contribution by naming a new building housing its history department after him. In 1922, perhaps it was his gift to scholars that resonated with people. But for many students today it is jarring, to say the least, to have such a prominent monument to a leader of a violent hate group.

As at every campus where similar issues have been debated, some see a name change as a simple fix that could have a profound effect. Others see empty symbolism, or a whitewashing of history.

But with national events such as the shooting in Ferguson, Mo., setting off strong emotions about race, those campus protests have picked up urgency.

Students recently protested at Clemson University, where its iconic Tillman hall was named for a politician who was a powerful white supremacist.

Last month, Clemson University Board of Trustees Chairman David H. Wilkins announced it would not rename the building, saying there were more concrete ways to ensure that all students feel welcome and included on campus.

“We believe that other, more meaningful, initiatives should be implemented that will have more of an impact on the diversity of our campus than this symbolic gesture,” he said in a statement.

“Every great institution is built by imperfect craftsmen. Stone by stone they add to the foundation so that over many, many generations, we get a variety of stones.   And so it is with Clemson.  Some of our historical stones are rough and even unpleasant to look at.  But they are ours and denying them as part of our history does not make them any less so.   For that reason, we will not change the name of our historical buildings.  Part of knowledge is to know and understand history so you learn from it.”

The issue isn’t limited to the South, where many schools have tributes to Confederate leaders.

For example, Brown University, founded by a slave owner, recently took on its complicated past with a series of initiatives.

At UNC, student protesters proposed that Saunders Hall be renamed in honor of the writer Zora Neale Hurston, who was the first black student at Carolina before integration.


A UNC student holds a message for board members (Tasia Harris)

For Tasia Harris, a senior from Brooklyn, it’s just one more reminder that black students are not always welcome there. “There is a lot of pushback, on Yik Yak, online; people will say hurtful things about this campaign or about students of color in general.

“That goes to show it’s not about Saunders or some kind of past history,” she said, adding that it shows racism is part of the foundation of the school, something that continues into the present.

“Students have been talking about this issue a long time,” she said, but from school officials “there has been an unwillingness to acknowledge how hateful and violent these sites are.” Because the board has so many older white men on it, she said, it may be difficult for it “to really conceive what it’s like to be a student of color or woman of color on campus and walk past Saunders Hall.”

On Wednesday, UNC leaders made the debate much more public, in the board meeting — where some speakers defended the name and others called for it to be changed — and online:

The board suggested that people share their thoughts here from now until April 25.