The University System of Maryland Board of Regents, which has the authority to change the name, is scheduled to vote on his proposal Friday morning.
Loh’s decision comes after months of student complaints that Harry Clifton “Curley” Byrd, who was president of the state university from 1936 to 1954, barred black students from enrolling until forced to do so by court order. When Byrd ran for governor, he did so as an ardent advocate for segregation.
Universities across the country — and abroad — are debating some of their most honored landmarks and traditions, as students have increasingly raised concerns about historic figures they now see as divisive or degrading rather than inspiring. Schools such as the University of Texas and Washington and Lee University have vowed to move Confederate statues and flags out of prominent locations.
The fights have taken on increasing heat this fall. After student protesters at the University of Missouri forced the departure of two of the school’s top officials over perceived insensitivity to race and other bias issues, the momentum carried over to campuses nationwide, in part inspired by Black Lives Matter demonstrations and a belief that administrators now would have to listen.
Those debates can be complex, such as at Princeton, where students are pushing administrators to scrub Woodrow Wilson’s name from the elite school. The 28th U.S. president is revered for his progressive legacy at the nation’s helm but also is reviled for being a segregationist who some believe supported the ideas of the Ku Klux Klan. The University of Kentucky’s president recently covered a 1930s mural that he argues played down the brutality of slavery and was insensitive to minority students yet that others argue is a piece of artwork that captures Kentucky’s history.
Many say that the nation’s history is a mix of good and bad that should be acknowledged, not whitewashed.
Matthew Clark, a spokesman for Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), said the decision on renaming Byrd Stadium is up to the school’s Board of Regents. Hogan, who supported recalling the state’s Sons of Confederate license plates, indicated in July that he had no interest in removing a statue of former chief justice of the United States Roger B. Taney outside the State House in Annapolis or renaming Maryland’s football stadium.
Efforts to remove the controversial reminders, Hogan said at the time, amounted to “political correctness run amok.”
“Where do we draw the line?” Hogan asked. “Some of this history is our history. We hear people saying we should dig up the Confederate cemeteries in Maryland.”
Clark said Monday that Hogan’s position has not changed.
“He believes these kind of debates can be taken way too far,” Clark said. “Our position is that it is a matter for the regents to decide.”
Students were surprised by the announcement, said Patrick Ronk, president of the student government association at U-Md., with some expressing anger but most either very supportive or ambivalent.
“Reactions either way have been not so much about Byrd himself,” Ronk said. “I don’t think people have an affinity for Curley Byrd. . . . It’s not a Thomas-Jefferson-at-U-Va. kind of thing. It’s more what he represents. Some people think, ‘Oh, it’s great, the university is taking a stance, acting on its ideals, doesn’t want to glorify a racist.’ ”
Others have reacted against the idea of glossing over history to fit in with current times, he said: “It shows that student activism works and the administration listens to student concerns, which is good. The larger theme is the university is moving toward greater diversity and listening to how students’ concerns and how they really feel.”
Colin Byrd, a senior at Maryland, has led the most recent push to change the stadium’s name, for personal and historical reasons. He and his father, a 1978 alumnus, would not have been allowed to attend the school in Curley Byrd’s day. The Terrapins should not honor bigotry and racial discrimination, he has said. A coalition of groups including the campus’ Black Student Union, NAACP and several Greek organizations pushed the issue and were joined in April by the student government.
Loh wrote that Byrd is regarded as “Father and Builder” of U-Md. over a 43-year career at the school, dramatically increasing enrollment, faculty, funding and the size of the campus, laying the foundation for the school as it is today.
“He was also an ardent proponent of racial segregation and discrimination. To many African-American alumni and students, ‘Byrd Stadium’ — the ‘front porch’ of the institution, not the most important part of the educational house, but the most visible one — conveys a racial message hidden in plain sight. The name stands as a vivid and painful reminder that a generation ago they were unwelcome on this campus. For them, this past is more than mere history. Their pursuit of inclusion and equal opportunity remains unfinished.”
“History is not about the past,” Loh wrote. “It concerns today’s debates about the past.” It is unfair to judge past leaders by contemporary values, he wrote. “Still, the world has changed.”
School officials said the university will not erase the Byrd name from campus; if the stadium is renamed, the university plans to honor Byrd’s legacy in one of the main libraries. And U-Md. will not change any other building names honoring people for the next five years if the change is approved.
The stadium proposal coincides with other recent changes on campus honoring black citizens such as a new statue of Frederick Douglass and the just-renamed Parren J. Mitchell Art-Sociology Building. But Loh pledged to “move from symbolic change to institutional improvements: True change is not realized by name change alone. This controversy is symptomatic of deeper divides on campus and in the nation at large.”
Next semester, the university will begin campuswide dialogues about diversity and community to help bridge those divides, he wrote.
This is the third time in the past 25 years that students have tried to change the name, each time during heightened tensions nationally over race relations. The latest attempt coincided with the public release of an email full of racial slurs that, once made public, went viral far beyond U-Md.’s campus.
“Symbols matter,” Loh wrote. “Monuments, battle flags, and building names elicit deep emotions, positive and negative. They help us recognize truths about our past and affirm the values by which we live today. The Byrd name has acquired that power.”
Colin Byrd was surprised, and pleased, by the decision. “Over time it seems like President Loh has evolved on the issue and he’s come to the realization that it’s time for us to say bye-bye to Curley. So obviously I’m glad about that,” he said. At the same time, he said he wasn’t yet sure about the name “Maryland Stadium,” as he would have liked to have seen a name honoring someone who helped integrate the school.
There was immediate celebration, opposition to the recommendation — and resignation, as well. (And the board of regents asked for people to email their opinions to email@example.com “to facilitate the board’s interest in hearing from all sides regarding the proposed stadium name change.”)
As for Loh’s recommendation that a library somehow honor the Byrd legacy, Colin Byrd said he doesn’t think the man deserves an honor but, “I was not under any illusion they were going to completely do away with every aspect of his legacy. I saw even if they changed the name they still would throw him a bone.
“I look at this as positive overall,” he said. “If they want to give him a plaque, go ahead and give him a plaque.”