These guiding principles were devised by the Guiding Principles Subcommittee of the Advisory Committee on Naming.
The power of naming implies the power of creation. The power of naming calls into being and establishes the reality of being. This is why narrating the past is a risk-filled endeavor because narratives and history are not synonymous. Though we cannot tell the latter without the former, narratives are inherently partial. Narratives both reflect and reinscribe power. They often provide a view of history from those who have cultural privilege and institutional influence. Narratives can also authorize and entitle the present at the expense of the past. Popular and oft-repeated accounts have a way of revealing a contemporary community’s aims and aspirations more than illumining as previous realities.
Consider the term Pro Humanitate at Wake Forest University. Pro Humanitate was adopted as the motto of Wake Forest College in 1909 under the leadership of President William Poteat. Today, Pro Humanitate is ubiquitous at Wake Forest and so ingrained in the campus culture that one would think its history began with the founding of the University. Yet, the mention of the term (apart from its presence on the seal) or in a select few settings was mostly nonexistent at Wake Forest University as recently as 50 years ago. This speaks to the power of how narrating the past can shape a community’s understanding of its present and frame its future. By and large, Wake Forest University has benefitted from our recent narratives of Pro Humanitate in advancing the mission of the University.
By embracing the narrative of Pro Humanitate, we have defined our unique identity as Wake Forest University consistent with our core aims, goals and values. Pro Humanitate is most often defined as “for humanity,” which signifies service to and for humankind. Through excellent teaching, scholarly research and technological innovation, Wake Forest’s mission is geared toward bettering human life and society for all of humanity.
Yet, there are other narratives of Pro Humanitate that can broaden and deepen our understanding of the University and guide in shaping our vision for the future. In his 2012 Founders’ Day address, Professor of Classical Languages James Powell offered our community a nuanced narrative of Pro Humanitate informed by classical essayist Aulus Gellius. Professor Powell asked the community to consider a definition of “Humanitate” that “is the equivalent of the Greek paideia education in the richest sense of developing the fullness of human potential.” According to this understanding, “Pro Humanitate calls us to consider what we are as human beings and what constitutes genuine human flourishing.” Pro Humanitate is not just about directing our intellect, labor and talents to serve humanity. Pro Humanitate asks us to deeply contemplate the nature of our humanity and to develop a critical understanding of the things that enable us to thrive. Pro Humanitate, then, is not just outward-oriented. It also underscores cultivating and nurturing the qualities of “humanness” in deepening our understanding of what makes us human and how we may better serve humanity. This orientation guides education and personal growth in alignment with serving society and humanity.
Our brief engagement with the narrative history of the Pro Humanitate motto at Wake Forest University reminds us that each generation must interrogate prevailing notions of humanity and humanness. Our understanding of these notions should never be taken for granted. How an institution like Wake Forest conceives of what it means to be human and what activities are best suited to serve and cultivate such humanity is always an open question.
The history of Wake Forest University, like the history of the United States, reveals shifting perspectives on these fundamental issues. These shifts determine whom the institution is called to serve and how the institution understands its mission to cultivate humanness. One need look no further than curricular choices coupled with the administration, faculty, and student body’s constitution over time. Each speaks to what and for whom Wake Forest University stood and how specific narratives developed over time. Consistent with its commitment to Pro Humanitate, the University community benefits from examining even its most revered narratives, values, and traditions. This is the only way to ensure that Wake Forest provides an inclusive and equitable environment for students, alumni, faculty, staff and trustees.
In expanding the narrative of Wake Forest University and interrogating shifting notions of humanity at different epochs, invariably, the institution will identify morally indefensible behaviors of those whose names occupy places of honor on campus. The University will need to consider whether retaining a name or offering to name belies the University’s integrity and undercuts its commitment to its core academic values in a diverse and inclusive campus environment. The names that enjoy pride of place in the narrative history of Wake Forest University say as much about our present as it does about our past. However, this does not mean that the University should take lightly the aim and purpose of the University’s original decision to recognize particular figures nor does it dismiss how those historical narratives have shaped and formed our distinctive academic community. As previously stated, narrating the past is a risk-filled endeavor. Yet narrating the past also offers rich opportunities for understanding better our collective past as we seek to forge a brighter future.
Wake Forest University is a distinctive academic community that values a diversity of perspectives in narrating our complex past. Therefore, the following principles should guide and inform proposals for naming aspects of the University. None of these principles is mutually exclusive from another, as we expect University officials to hold all in tension one with another.
A Commitment to Academic Freedom: No naming or renaming process should inhibit teaching, learning and research or preclude academic inquiry for any member of the University community.
A Commitment to Diversity and Inclusivity: Names are important symbols that narrate and communicate the core values of the University to students, faculty and the broader community. Naming or renaming must be an inclusive process that seeks to commemorate a diversity of notable personalities that reflect the core values of the University.
A Commitment to Historical Investigation and Analysis: Any consideration of naming or renaming must follow a thorough assessment and analysis of individual actions, intellectual contributions and ethical debates germane to the appropriate historical context. Naming or renaming does not reflect the University’s intent to revise or erase history, but rather it signifies an intent to honor the core and enduring values of the University.
A Commitment to Remembering: The University must help the broader community distinguish between honoring and remembering. In cases where historical discovery reveals that honoring someone with a name on a building, monument, street or endowed position is inconsistent with the University’s professed values, the community needs to remember aspects of its past, particularly those now considered morally repugnant.
A Commitment to Transparency and Tradition: Naming and renaming are part of the living tradition of Wake Forest University. In demonstrating a commitment to Pro Humanitate, our community stands in judgment over the past, as future communities will one day look back on this moment with the eyes of differently informed judgment and one, hopes, more “humanness,” which is also a commitment to Pro Humanitate. Such transparency and tradition have two components: a.) openness and intellectual honesty insofar as there is a commitment to sharing publicly the rationale for naming or renaming, and b.) officials confer current and previous generations the same level of consideration and respect they would hope to receive.