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UVa poised to change name of Alderman Library

The University of Virginia is one step away from changing the name of Alderman Library, after years of discussion about the university’s controversial first president and his legacy on Grounds.

Edwin Alderman served as UVa’s chief executive from 1905 to 1931.

He was also an advocate for eugenics, a movement devoted to improving the human species through the control of hereditary factors. Alderman led the charge to transform UVa into a “leading eugenics research center,” according to a 2018 university report on the school’s history of racism.

And while eugenics popularized many health care practices accepted today — such as birth control, prenatal screenings and marriage restrictions prohibiting close relations from reproducing — the movement has become more associated with its controversial applications — such as compulsory sterilization, racial segregation and forced abortions and pregnancies.

During a Thursday meeting of the UVa Board of Visitors’ Buildings and Grounds Committee, all but one member of the 11-person committee voted to approve a resolution to rename the recently ated library after UVa’s fourth president, Edgar Shannon.

Shannon served during a politically tumultuous time in the university’s, and country’s, history. During his tenure from 1959 to 1974, Shannon admitted the first female undergraduates in 1970, pushed to increase Black admissions and endorsed a student-led protest against the Vietnam War.

The votes were not cast without some discussion and criticism.

Rachel Sheridan noted that a naming committee had limited name alternatives to other UVa presidents.

“They narrowed the decision to seven human beings. And I, for one, think that there are more than seven human beings worth honoring in this institution,” Sheridan said.

Paul Harris also argued that the university should consider more diverse candidates, such as women or people of color who were either Virginians or attended the state’s flagship school.

But that was not the focus of his argument. Instead, Harris spent six minutes Tuesday reading from a prepared speech, in which he argued the library should not be renamed at all.

“This vote is yet another same reminder of the graceless world in which we live. I find it amazing that people can be so confident in their own rectitude,” Harris said. “Renaming buildings is a discouraging reflection of our culture, a culture that is no friend to grace.”

“I would like to see this university devote its resources to building bridges across the issues that divide us rather than searching through stacks in the library to find human imperfections of past leaders for the sole purpose of condemning those who did not and cannot meet unforgiving and impossible standards,” he continued.

Some members applauded Harris’ speech. Doug Wetmore said he “agree with every word of it.”

Other visitors did not, including Robert Blue.

Blue noted that there is a tunnel on Grounds named after his own great-great-grandfather, and he’d have no problem if someone wanted to change its name.

“I reject the notion that changing the name somehow erases history,” he said. “In my mind, the only person who gets perpetual naming rights at the University of Virginia is Thomas Jefferson.”

Jefferson, the Founding Father and third U.S. president, founded the school in 1819.

Both the student and faculty representatives on the board claimed that their peers on Grounds want to see Alderman’s name removed from the library.

“I can’t speak on what students would have preferred the name to be, but I do know that the preference generally amongst the student body was that it would not be Alderman Library,” student representative Lillian Rojas said.

Rojas added that a student petition to change the name currently has over 1,300 signatures, and she called student support for the name change “overwhelming.”

With recent protests on Grounds over the Israel-Hamas war, Rojas said that Shannon is an apt choice for the moment.

“I think seeing Shannon and hearing the speeches he made throughout Vietnam have really related to students throughout these difficult times,” she said.

During the Vietnam War, Shannon took the side of student protesters and even sent a letter to then-President Richard Nixon opposing the U.S. invasion of Cambodia.

Committee Chairman John Nau III was a UVa student during Shannon’s tenure.

“In 1968, most of us were going to go into the service,” he said. “He kept the fire going, but he turned the heat down. He did a miraculous job in having this not become a front-page school like a whole lot of other ones.”

Harris was the only person not to vote in favor of the change, choosing instead to abstain.

The name change will not become official before Friday afternoon, when the entire Board of Visitors will make a final vote.


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