Queen's Policy Engagement

Is it time to rename QUB’s buildings?

In recent years Queen's University has done much to redress the balance of visibility of women and other minorities in the university’s history but is there more that could be done asks Professor Marie Coleman.

Is it time to rename QUB’s buildings?

A recent investigation by the online newspaper Byline Times noted the preponderance among Russell Group universities to have most of their buildings named in honour of white men. The study focused on 19 of 24 RG universities and while it is unclear if Queen’s was included, it appears unlikely as the focus seems largely to be on English and Scottish universities.

Nonetheless, this is clearly an area where Queen’s is fully aligned with its Russell Group comparators. With the exception of Riddel Hall (established initially in 1913 as a remove from the main university, for the purpose of providing a residence for female students following the admission of women to the full status of students in the early twentieth century) it is difficult to think of (m)any parts of the university estate named after women or those from a more diverse ethnic backgrounds.

Queen’s has a beautiful main campus but the account of its historic buildings on the university’s website reveals just how starkly male-centric these are in terms of naming: the only names to appear on this site are Charles Lanyon, William Henry Lynn, Hamilton Harty, Eric Ashy and David Keir. To this list can be added more recent buildings, institutes and centres honouring Peter Froggatt, Alan McClay, Bernard Crossland, George Mitchell and Patrick Johnston. William Whitla is remembered in both the Aula Maxima and a medical faculty building.

Anyone familiar with the history of the university will recognise that all of these figures made important contributions to the university in terms of philanthropic donations or academic renown, or both in the case of William Whitla, who, in addition to his tenure as Professor of Matera Medica, a Pro-Chancellor and an MP for the university constituency at the Westminster Parliament, bequeathed his palatial home in Lennoxvale to serve as the Vice-Chancellor’s residence and also donated the statue of Galileo which rests in the Black and White Hall (when it appears no other cultural institution could find room for it).

An argument could be made that the most important naming rights of all – that of the university itself – honour a woman, but in reality this is a recognition of an office holder rather than an individual. If William IV had enjoyed better luck in producing a legitimate living heir (11 of his 16 children were illegitimate and the remaining 5 legitimate ones were either still born or died in infancy) we would likely be the King’s University.

In recent years the university has done much to redress the balance of visibility of women and other minorities in the university’s history. Before my job interview in June 2004 I calmed my nerves with a cup of tea in the Great Hall, watched by a gallery of important personages, only three of whom at the time were women – Queen Victoria, Mary McAleese (the university’s first female Pro-Vice Chancellor and at that time serving President of Ireland) and Queen Elizabeth II (also only there by dint of an office acceded to through more royal avuncular mishap).

The portrait gallery in the Great Hall is now much more diverse in terms of gender balance, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Queen’s Gender Initiative, with the addition of likenesses of May Blood, Molly McGeown, Elizabeth Meehan, Margaret Mullet, Edna Longley and Ingrid Allen among others. More work needs to be done in this space to recognise other minorities associated with the university; so far the limited nod in the direction of BAME academics or office holders is represented by the portrait of a previous Chancellor, Kamalesh Sharma. As part of the celebrations for the university’s 175th anniversary in 2020 there was also a commendable focus on the role of women.

How can this problem be fixed? One possibility is to re-name existing buildings, as has become commonplace in other institutions where the benefactors’ associations (such as with the slave trade) are no longer considered suitable. Luckily Queen’s escaped the notice of Cecil Rhodes so no such embarrassing connotations seem to apply in the case of those after whom QUB buildings are named. A more feasible approach would be to seek to re-balance the exiting naming provisions.

Not very many buildings or rooms in the university have a name so there is plenty of space on the estate to add names. Surely the Senate Room no longer functions as such due to the Senate being too large to meet there. Could that not be renamed? Within my own discipline of History we could explore ways of noting the significance of Maude Clarke (whose photo portrait we have in No. 15 University Square), the first woman History academic in QUB, or Joshua Adeware Alokan, the first African to study History here.

If past balance can be redressed, future naming policy can also be examined to ensure a balance going forward. Many of our buildings are named after past Vice-Chancellors (Keir, Ashby, Froggatt, Johnston) which limits the constituency of honourees to an office held exclusively by men to date in the 177 years of the university’s history. A broader conception of service to the university needs to be adopted in decisions on naming to ensure areas where minorities have contributed will qualify.

In recent years the university has undoubtedly worked hard to highlight the contribution to its past and present activities of people from more diverse backgrounds. Nevertheless, much of this remains hidden within the walls of the Great Hall or in less frequently visited parts of the website. The physical infrastructure of the university remains its most visible manifestation and as such the nomenclature of the estate requires rebalancing to reflect the current values of the university in regard to equality, diversity and inclusion.

Professor Marie Coleman
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Professor Marie Coleman is Professor of Twentieth Century Irish History in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen's University Belfast. Marie's principal research interests are in twentieth-century Irish history, especially the Irish revolution. In 2021 she was a member of the Northern Ireland Office’s Centenary Historical Advisory Panel and is co-editor of a forthcoming series of essays, Northern Ireland, 1921-2021: Centenary Perspectives.

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