Max Colbert investigates the backgrounds of those commemorated on leading university campuses

The overwhelming majority of Russell Group university buildings named after prominent individuals are named after white men, with several of these individuals having links to colonialism and the slave trade, the Byline Intelligence Team has found.

On Russell Group university campuses, 87% of named buildings are named after men (86% of whom are/were white British) and just 13% are named after women (94% of whom are/were white British). In total, 87.5% of named campus buildings are named after white Brits.

An investigation also found that 43% of these named individuals held a title – such as a knighthood or a peerage – and that of these only 11.8% are women (nearly one-third of this figure comprises three female monarchs named multiple times across several institutions).

The findings come from an assessment of all named buildings across 19 of the 24 universities in the Russell Group, with the remaining five institutions failing to respond to requests for information. The figures also don’t include statues in or around the buildings, or certain rooms within buildings named after different individuals.

Black and ethnic minority students made up 21.1% of all 18-year-old applicants to Russell Group universities in 2017.

A lack of representation in academia stretches across the board, encompassing societies, curricula, faculties, and representation via memorialisation.

Recent research conducted by the Higher Education Statistics Agency has shown that fewer than 1% of professors at UK universities are black – just 155 professors out of 22,810.

London Metropolitan University academic Sofia Akel told iNews in February that “lack of representation is not just about the number of us in these spaces, it also means the lack of our voices, knowledge, works and histories in the curriculum itself”.

There is also a stark lack of diversity represented in postgraduate studies, with the UK Council for Graduate Education highlighting a growth rate for black and ethnic minority postgrad researchers of just 0.13% between 2016/17 and 2018/19.

Buildings with the names of philanthropic donors make up 15.7% of the named buildings featured across the campuses, although many requests for information about donations and their links to buildings were refused, so this figure is likely to be much higher.

The vast majority of buildings named after individuals have been done so in commemoration of the significant achievements they have made in their chosen fields, often contributing to areas of scientific discovery, engineering, or furthering important social causes.

Sheffield University, for example, houses the Amy Johnson Building – named after the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia, who studied at the university. Oxford is home to the Anna Watts Building – in honour of Professor Watts, an expert in the study of the violent dynamic events that occur on neutron stars. Glasgow features the James McCune Smith Learning hub – named after the famous physician and prominent member of the Scottish and English 1800s abolitionist movement, and the first African American to be awarded a medical degree.

However, there are several instances of institutions commemorating people linked to the slave trade, tobacco industry, or who have similarly questionable histories. This investigation has identified a number of buildings named after people with colonial links.

Bristol University, for instance, has several buildings with links to colonialism. One is Goldney Hall – bought and named by Thomas Goldney II in the 17th Century, prior its purchase by the university. Goldney and his son were both linked to the triangular slave trade through manillas produced by their ironworks. The university – located in the city famous for the recent toppling of a statue of slave-trader Edward Colston – also features the Wills Memorial Building, named for Henry Overton Wills, of the Imperial Tobacco manufacturing company, which in 2017 also faced a petition from the student body to be renamed due to Overton’s alleged links to the slave trade.

A University of Bristol spokesperson said: “Research led by Olivette Otele, the University’s Professor of History of Slavery and Memory of Enslavement, will inform a review of relevant university building names and the university logo to ensure they reflect the university’s vision and values. This will include consultation with staff, students and the wider public. More information on this will be shared in the coming months.”

Liverpool University similarly hosts the Leverhulme Building – named after Lord William Hesketh Lever, manufacturer of Sunlight Soap whose firm was associated with forced labour and using palm oil produced in British west African colonies. In 2020, Liverpool also agreed to change the name of a building named after William Gladstone, because of his anti-abolitionist stance and links to slave ownership.

A Liverpool University spokesperson said: “We recognise that slavery and colonialism are intrinsically linked to the history of the city of Liverpool, and that the historic wealth of families and businesses in the city – including some who will have contributed to the University – will have benefitted from this.

“The university is very conscious of this history, and we have therefore put a number of initiatives in place to educate and advance knowledge both in relation to historical and contemporary slavery – and our relationship to these as an institution.

“Furthermore, we are continuing to research the naming of our assets (including buildings, lecture theatres seminar and meeting rooms, academic posts, scholarships and bursaries).”

The Macfarlane Observatory in Glasgow University is also named after Alexander MacFarlane – a merchant slave-owner in Kingston, Jamaica, who bequeathed instruments to the institution upon his death in 1755. 


Patriarchitecture

There is a national debate underway about the figures commemorated by public institutions.

A 2021 investigation into Imperial College London’s colonial past made several recommendations to this effect, urging the university to remove from statues and buildings the names of scientists whose work advocated eugenics.

In 2020, Edinburgh renamed its David Hume Tower over the philosopher’s “comments on matters of race”. In the wake of the dramatic sinking of the Colston statue in Bristol, anti-racism campaigners also launched the crowdfunded ‘Topple The Racists’ interactive map, which features the names of other prominent colonial figures and their placements on memorials and statues across the country. 

In addition to the colonial history of many of the buildings, and their lack of representation of black and ethnic minority individuals, women, and working-class people, recent years have also seen instances of buildings being named after individuals who have given large cash donations – sparking protests from student bodies.

In Oxford, the Sackler Library is probably the most glaring instance, with the student union unanimously passing a motion to remove the name. The billionaire Sackler family, which has donated £11 million to Oxford, own Purdue Pharma – which introduced and marketed the opioid painkiller OxyContin in America, contributing to a crisis of opiate use which has claimed more than 535,000 lives since 1999.

Facing around 3,000 lawsuits, Purdue filed for bankruptcy in 2019, but not before Sackler family members took more than $10 billion from the firm. Many institutions across the country are now revisiting their association with the Sackler family as a result. 

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But the Sacklers aren’t alone. Oxford itself also houses the Said Business School, named after Wafic Said – a Conservative donor who came to prominence as a ‘fixer’ who helped to facilitate the al-Yamamah arms deal between Margaret Thatcher’s administration and the Saudi Government in the 1980s: the largest arms deal in UK history at the time.

Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government is similarly of note – financed by Russian billionaire Leonard Blavatnik, who donated £75 million to the school. The deal at the time prompted Professor of Government and Public Policy Bo Rothstein to resign his position – referencing the donations made by Blavatnik to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

In the 10-year-period leading up to 2017, more than two-thirds of all millionaire philanthropic donations – £4.8 billion – went into higher eduction, with half of this figure going to Oxford and Cambridge alone. During the same period, British millionaires gave £1 billion to the arts and only £222 million to alleviating poverty. 

“Giving at scale by the super-wealthy has done little to redistribute wealth from rich to poor, helping perpetuate social inequalities rather than remedying them,” a 2021 study from the universities of Newcastle and Bath found.

While the push to address a lack of diversity in public spaces, especially places of learning, has to be multi-faceted, a good starting point is often to recognise that an issue exists, and to begin to remedy it. While women make up between 45% and 65% of intake for most Russell Group institutions, and non-white undergraduates comprise of between 20% and 40% in most instances, these figures are not reflected in the architecture of campus buildings. 

It is a form of under-representation that can often be overlooked by some, but seen as a form of damaging ‘Patriarchitecture’ by others, who believe that learning spaces should aim to better reflect the achievements of campus communities – something that, both at home and abroad, is starting to happen more and more frequently. 

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