After months of debate, UNC-Chapel Hill on Thursday will install new signs – Carolina Hall – on the former Saunders Hall, a building long ago named for a reputed 19th century Ku Klux Klan leader.
But issues around signs and name changes at UNC-CH have also prompted concerns about whether free speech is alive and well at the public university.
During the past few months, campus police have removed or tried to remove handwritten “Hurston Hall” signs taped in the building. On Friday, three officers showed up at the office door of a faculty member, wanting to take down signs spelling “Hurston” on the office’s third-floor windows.
For months, student activists promoted the name Hurston Hall as the UNC Board of Trustees deliberated over whether to change the name of the building. Students argued it would be appropriate to honor Zora Neale Hurston, the black writer who had once unofficially studied drama at UNC. They had Hurston Hall T-shirts made. They ‘Photoshopped’ the name Hurston Hall on images of the historic Saunders Hall sign. Hundreds of students wrote in the name Zora Neale Hurston in this year’s student body president election.
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But when the board voted 10-3 to rename the building in May, it chose the generic-sounding Carolina Hall, saying it would be a unifying name.
Sometime that same month, signs saying Hurston were removed from the first-floor windows in an office for religious studies graduate students.
Altha Cravey, a professor of geography, was disturbed by that action, she said in an interview Wednesday. So she took several pieces of pink paper and wrote Hurston in block letters and taped them onto her third-floor window panes.
Over the summer, she almost forgot about the sign, now faded by the sun, until uniformed officers arrived Friday to take them down.
Cravey explained to the officers that the sign was important to her, she said.
“I had kind of put my teacher hat on and was trying to say this has been a long-term movement for years and years, that people have been talking about the name of this building and being offended by the name of this building,” she said.
She said the discussion was tense.
“My voice was rising, their voices were rising as we were kind of talking past each other,” Cravey said. “I told them I worked with words, that’s what I do. That’s my whole job – it’s about words and debate. To me, the sign was about freedom of expression.”
Cravey refused to take down the sign and the officers left. But she was so upset, she sat down at her computer and posted an account of the incident on Facebook. That prompted a flurry of responses. Some faculty told her to get a lawyer, she said. Some told her to get a bigger sign.
On Saturday, Cravey received an apology email from Matt Fajack, UNC’s chief financial officer and vice chancellor for finance and administration. It said the university’s facilities policy about signs should not apply in Cravey’s case.
He added that campus police are in the process of “fair and impartial policing” training that can help them make sound decisions in sensitive situations.
Susan Bickford, a political science professor, wrote to Fajack on Sunday that the university’s sign policy was at odds with common practice. She explained that the policy had not been enforced for fliers that are routinely posted on faculty doors, notifying students of events and office hours.
Bickford encouraged the university to reconsider the policy because it could have a chilling effect on free speech. “What is called for is a public, repeated affirmation of the university as a site of contestation and dissent,” Bickford wrote.
On Wednesday, Fajack released a statement saying that the primary officer involved “wasn’t trying to make a political statement, nor was she trying to intimidate anyone. She was just doing her job.”
The statement further said UNC’s facilities policy is fundamentally sound but overly broad and needs to be updated. He thanked Cravey for alerting him to the issue but also thanked the police: “They have a difficult job, and their professionalism is not only the key to their success, but critical to maintaining the safety and security of our entire campus so that it can be an optimal learning environment for all.”
Cravey said the encounter with police was disturbing and antithetical to academic freedom. Classrooms should be open to any and all ideas, she said.
“It seems really at the core of what we do if we’re going to call ourselves an educational institution. It’s a simple thing – a piece of paper with a few letters on it, but for me it stands for that.”
No shrinking violet, Cravey is soft spoken but an outspoken supporter of student activists. She attended trustee meetings where the Saunders Hall issue was discussed. Her door is covered with fliers, including a small placard declaring the room “a branch office” of the UNC poverty center, which was eliminated by the UNC Board of Governors this year in what some claimed was a political move.
She teaches a course called “Space, Place and Difference,” and she’s been known to take her students on a campus tour to show how women were segregated before they had equal access to the university.
Cravey has spent 21 years in a building named for William Saunders, a purported KKK leader, UNC trustee and editor of the Raleigh Observer newspaper, which would eventually become The News & Observer. She was happy about the building being renamed.
Almost immediately, the university ordered new business cards for professors and changed campus maps. Department chairs sent out notifications that faculty should not use the name “Hurston Hall” in their email signatures, Cravey said.
Katherine Merriman, graduate student in religious studies, said the repeated removal of Hurston signs in the first-floor shared graduate office had been disappointing.
“For me it just makes me feel like we can’t have an open discussion,” she said.
The Hurston signs are back in that window now, too.
“We’re not taking it down,” Merriman said. “Those are staying up.”