Harvard University is again caught up in controversy over a name that some students and alumni have found to be racially offensive, as an activist group is pressing the Ivy League school to rename its Board of Overseers.
The Coalition for a Diverse Harvard is taking issue with the word “overseers” because it harkens back to slavery. The men hired by plantation owners to supervise and violently control slaves were called overseers.
The activist group has been urging individual members of Harvard’s second-highest governing body to get rid of the word “overseers” in its name since 2017, and with anti-racism protesters demonstrating across the nation since the slaying of George Floyd in May, the coalition says it may have the momentum to push through the renaming. One of the group’s leaders told the Harvard Crimson student newspaper that all five of the Board of Overseers candidates (out of thirteen) that the coalition has endorsed support the name change.
It wouldn’t be surprising for Harvard to grant the request. The university ruled in 2016 that dormitory administrators would no longer be known as “house masters,” but rather “faculty deans.” Like “overseers,”“masters” was criticized by some students because of the ties to slavery. Students are currently petitioning to rename the Mather House dormitory because it was named after former Harvard President Increase Mather, a class of 1656 alumnus who owned a slave.
Harvard’s Ivy League rival, Yale University, faces a campaign to change its name because of its ties to benefactor Elihu Yale, a slave trader.
Naming sensitivities aren’t limited to the Ivy League. Students at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania, demanded in 2015 that Lynch Memorial Hall be renamed because of the racial connotations of the word “lynch” despite the fact that the building was named after Clyde A. Lynch, who had nothing to do with slavery and was president of the insititution from 1932 to 1950.
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