18th-century philosopher George Berkeley, who it turns out owned slaves and wrote pro-slavery pamphlets, may spur the latest renaming crusade, as both UC Berkeley and the city of Berkeley delicately consider a possible renaming.
The University of California school system has done a fair amount of historical reckoning with its building and school namesakes whom they have learned had troublesome pasts. The SF law school UC Hastings changed its name in 2021 over founder Serranus Hastings’s history of genocide and enslaving of Native Americans, and UC Berkeley changed the names of several academic buildings in 2020 for similar reasons. Now another prompt for change is coming, from Ireland of all places, where the New York Times reports Dublin’s Trinity College is renaming its library named for George Berkeley, because “he was both an owner of enslaved people and a theorist of slavery and racial discrimination, which is in clear conflict with Trinity’s core values,” the school said.
As a college in Dublin, Ireland, takes steps to expunge the name “Berkeley” from its central library, officials at UC Berkeley are confronting the painful legacy behind the moniker — but do they have plans to drop it? https://t.co/M57n5xNEWG— San Francisco Chronicle (@sfchronicle) May 9, 2023
That Irish philosopher and theologian George Berkeley (1685-1753) happens to be the same George Berkeley for whom the city of Berkeley and UC Berkeley are named. And the Chronicle reports that both the city and university have contemplated name changes, though neither sound inclined to do so, and there is not currently any groundswell of support for doing so.
Renaming a building or a law school, obviously, is less of an undertaking that renaming an entire city.
“We acknowledge that the university’s founders chose to name their new town and campus after an individual whose views warrant no honor or commemoration,” UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof said in a statement to the Chronicle. “At the same time, we are cognizant of the fact that over the course of the ensuing 155 years since the university’s founding, 'Berkeley' has come to embody and represent very different values and perspectives."
The name “Berkeley” certainly has come to represent rowdy left-wing student activism, liberalism generally, California cuisine, and a nanny-state local government among other things. But the larger branding concern is UC Berkeley's name recognition as a top-tier U.S. school. Changing signs and letterhead is relatively cheap, but Berkeley’s 155-year (and counting) legacy makes them a blue-chip school in a way that might have trouble surviving a name change.
In terms of the city of Berkeley, changing the city’s name would likely require a charter amendment approved by voters, as well as state-level legislation, as the state chartered Berkeley in 1868.
Another possible factor that may prevent a name change is that no one knows who George Berkeley is. He is not a modern figure or even a 19th Century figure, and died nearly 300 years ago. A 2022 Berkeleyside op-ed arguing for the name change, details him having “three slaves for his Rhode Island plantation.” There were some writings about converting slaves and Native American to Christianity, but nothing approaching the mass-homicide massacres of UC Hastings founder Serranus Hastings.
Berkeley was also a figure known in intellectual and philosophical circles for promoting the now obscure philosophy of "immaterialism," and for challenging notions of objectivity and material reality — ideas that were precursors to the likes of Einstein.
So are name changes a less urgent matter if the namesake only owned a few slaves, as opposed to hundreds? Is there a statute of limitations, say, if the wrongdoing happened before the United States even existed? These are questions that may be litigated out — that is, if there is any continuing groundswell of support for the city of Berkeley or UC Berkeley to actually change their names.
Image: Gku via Wikimedia Commons