By Michael Mistroff
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
In the midst of a global pandemic and an economic crisis, Towson University is engaged in a “Cancel-Culture War” after the school received backlash and criticism over the names of two of its residence halls.
A Towson student group, named “Tigers for Justice,” created a petition in February, calling for the university to change the names of Paca House, a residence hall, and Carroll Hall, a cluster of two- and four-bedroom apartments for 334 upper class or transfer students.
The buildings are named for slave owners William Paca and William Carroll, both of whom owned plantations in Maryland. Although the petition began before COVID-19 forced Towson to close campus, more than 8,500 signatures appear on the petition created in Change.org.
Whether or not the struggle over changing the building names constitute “Cancel Culture” is up for debate among students. The term “cancel culture” became popularized after the #MeToo movement went viral in 2017 and has evolved as a method for people to halt their support for an individual or organization found to be offensive for a behavior or belief.
TU senior Sophia Bates said renaming Paca House and Carroll Hall is actually “beyond the idea of cancel culture” because the educational institution has an obligation to reject white supremacy in academia.
“These buildings are named after slave owners, which is an entirely inhumane practice and a representation of pure evil in society and our past,” Bates said. “I’m in entire agreement for the school to rename these buildings because Towson University always prides [itself] on being diverse and accepting, and the idea of having buildings named after slave owners is disgusting and a horrible representation for the school.”
However, TU senior Meredith Matz said the issue at hand does represent cancel culture.
“Yes, to me, this is an example of cancel culture,” Matz said. “But I think the appropriate measures are being taken so that our university remains inclusive to all.”
Across the nation, citizens and elected officials have begun efforts to remove names and statues of ancient heroes who enslaved or exploited people. In Maryland, the Baltimore City Council recently voted to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day while others introduced legislation to rename a downtown Columbus obelisk to honor victims of police violence.
Earlier in the year, protesters toppled a Columbus statue and tossed it into the Baltimore Harbor, following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.
In June, Towson officials granted the Student Government Association permission to form a committee to review the names of the dorms and consider whether it would be appropriate to rename them. Since then, Towson has not announced any decision on the renaming of Paca House and Carroll Hall.
“It is important to note that the intent of TU’s naming policy is to ensure that Towson University facilities, buildings, and programs are named consistently with the university’s principles, ideals, and values,” President Kim Schatzel said in an email to students on Jun. 5.
TU senior Shai Jean-Baptiste said that the renaming of the dorms is an important first step to move forward from racism.
“As the world continues to progress, it’s important to understand that just because something is a part of history doesn’t make it okay,” Jean-Baptiste said. “The first step to that is changing how certain courses and even things such as names of academic building aren’t only seen through a white lens.”
Kate Allman, a professor of ethics at Towson, explained that renaming these buildings would require the school to overcome legal challenges that could have grave consequences for students.
“To change the name of a building often requires universities to break legal contracts and pay hefty financial reimbursements to the donors,” Allman said. “In some instances, the costs of breaking these contracts and paying back funds can have severe consequences on the most marginalized students on college campuses: decreases in student scholarships, fewer student services, larger class sizes, etc.”
Allman added that the University could overcome the challenge of renaming Paca House and Carroll Hall.
“The most promising solution is for the family members of the controversial figure to request that their family members’ name be removed from the building without legal or financial penalty,” Allman said. “There are some recent examples of the descendants of prominent Confederate leaders making requests like this.”
Besides demanding name changes, Allman said students can get involved in other ways that could help lessen the possible toll on the college and help it overcome any potential legal penalties.
“University alumni have started crowd-funding campaigns to replace the named endowments and select new building names that honor alumni or local leaders of color,” Allman said. “In cases like this, the university may still experience some financial burden, but student and academic services are not severely compromised.”
Allman explained the ethical dilemma that the school finds itself in by having two dorms named after slave owners remain on campus.
“The names inscribed on our college buildings send clear messages about who is welcome on our college campuses,” Allman said. “They communicate which histories and experiences are valued and deemed worthy to remember.”
The Towson University Center for Student Diversity did not respond to The Baltimore Watchdog‘s request for comment.