Resolution to rename buildings named after Father Junipero Serra gains support, faces backlash

March 4, 2016, 1:05 a.m.

In early February, the ASSU Undergraduate Senate passed a resolution requesting that the University rename all places on campus that bear the name of Junípero Serra, a Catholic missionary who colonized California for Spain in the 18th century and created the California mission system. Both the Graduate Student Council (GSC) and the Faculty Senate have since passed the resolution, officially supporting the effort for renaming. Ultimately, the decision now rests with the administration.

Under consideration are four places on campus carrying Serra’s namesake: Serra and Junipero Dorms, freshmen dorms in Stern and Wilbur, respectively; Serra House, which houses the Clayman Institute for Gender Studies; and Serra Mall, the street on campus that is Stanford’s official address. Because Stanford does not have the authority to rename Serra Mall, the resolution seeks to change the University’s official address. Junipero Serra Boulevard is also named after Serra, but is not included in the proposal.

Proponents of the resolution argue that Serra’s name deserves to be removed from campus for his role in overseeing the Spanish mission system, which converted Native Americans to Catholicism, suppressed their indigenous culture and significantly reduced the native population through disease and violence. Three of the missions under Serra’s purview were the San Jose, San Francisco and Santa Clara missions, which housed members of the Muwekma Ohlone tribe, who originally lived on the land that Stanford now occupies.

Leo Bird ’17 introduced the resolution in the ASSU senate.  Bird, who prefers to be referred to by the gender neutral “they,” said that they were motivated by what they saw as the discrepancy between Serra’s actions toward Native Californians and his legacy on Stanford’s campus.

“It really started out of conversations that I started to have my freshman year at the Native American cultural center,” Bird explained. “I started to get involved with Bay Area activism and started to recognize that there was this historical figure [Serra] that was represented that was sort of praised, honored, in a way that I felt really did a disservice to a lot of the California Native community as well as to my own identity, being here at Stanford.”

Gladis Xiloj ’17, the co-chair for the Stanford American Indian Association, said that, for her, the resolution is “personal.”

“Several of my friends within the Native community are being directly affected by this emotionally,” Xiloj said. “And as someone who wants to support Native students on campus … it is also my responsibility to be very aware of what’s happening, and [support] the resolution.”

Bird also criticized the way that Serra and the mission system are taught in California schools, claiming that many elementary school students visit missions and learn about Spanish colonization without understanding the context of the accompanying Native American genocide.

“Everyone learns about the missions systems, but unfortunately I think they get presented with the history that isn’t as telling as we would like to from an indigenous perspective,” Bird said.

Brandon Hill ’16, one of the ASSU Executives, echoed Bird’s sentiments about the failure of education concerning Serra and added that Stanford itself also lacks enough historical education about who Serra actually was.

“It’s incredible we could go to … supposedly the world’s greatest academic institution, but a massive chunk of knowledge is missing from the curriculum, or even from the campus lore,” Hill said.

Until this school year, education and conversations about Serra have largely been absent from campus, and even people who live in Serra Dorm did not engage with this history.

“It was really never brought up, living in Serra,” said Claudia McKenzie ’18, who lived in Serra last year. “You never really connected the name to the person. And even now I work in a building called the Serra House, and it’s never something that’s mentioned.”

Supporters of the resolution argue that removing Serra’s name from buildings is a step toward correcting the erasure of history.

“I think that it’s a really important conversation to have because all of the dorms in Stern Hall are supposedly named after ‘California pioneers’ – except for Zapata, which was added a lot later – but they’re also all white men,” McKenzie said. “So it’s a very selective history of California, which is a majority-minority state, and [Stanford as] a majority-minority school. So it’s an important conversation to have about what history we’re choosing to recognize.”

There have been many faculty who have been involved with the efforts as well, but the resolution was largely spearheaded by students.

“This is really a student-driven initiative,” said C. Matthew Snipp, a professor of sociology and former director of the Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity Program, who has been involved in the process of renaming Serra. “Which I think is actually appropriate given that it is a dorm.”


A number of students have expressed their concerns over the resolution, particularly the potential precedent renaming Serra might set. The Stanford Review has published several articles condemning the resolution.

“The resolution does not uphold [the Senate’s] duty in a particularly morally consistent way,” said Harry Elliot ’18, editor-in-chief of The Stanford Review. “It lists some harms and provides some plausible reasons why the name should be removed from campus… without providing nuances to the difference between, say, removing Jordan’s name from Jordan Hall and removing Serra’s from the various streets,” Elliot continued. David Starr Jordan, the first president of Stanford, was a proponent of eugenics.

“You rename Serra because Junípero Serra did some bad stuff … Are you going to rename Washington, D.C., too?” asked George Holderness ’18, who lived in Serra last year. “George Washington owned slaves and that was bad. And I think it would be very difficult to find something named after someone who didn’t do something bad,” he continued, later adding that people should be judged within their own historical context.

However, the resolution’s advocates say that they are not concerned about the lack of a definitive standard that delineates what kind of behavior justifies renaming a building.

Hill stressed the importance of narrowing down the issue in order to have a productive discussion. He also pointed out that Serra is a unique case because of his prominence on campus, with multiple buildings and streets named after him, his “clear violent track record” and the fact that he had no connection to Stanford University beyond colonizing the land it occupies.

Elliot also claims that the resolution’s advocates didn’t do due diligence before proposing it, arguing that they cannot easily change the name of a street, as it is municipal property.

Finley and Hill have talked to the administration about changing the address of the University, which is under Stanford’s jurisdiction, but Bird acknowledged the difficulty of renaming Junipero Serra Boulevard in Palo Alto, which is why the resolution only addresses changing the name of the street on campus.

“But at the same time [renaming the boulevard is] still an initiative that I want to see if I can do on a broader city-level,” Bird later added.

Advocates for the resolution also disagree with its critics over whether or not the general student body supports the efforts, opposes them or is apathetic.

Elliot expressed concerns about the objections of the Catholic community on campus, given that Serra is a saint in the Catholic Church, but Bird said that they were able to engage with the Catholic community in productive dialogue. Bird said that many members of the Stanford community aren’t opposed to the issue, but were simply unaware of Serra’s legacy or why some people might object to it.

Bird said they had good conversations with representatives of the Catholic community and the Inter-Fraternity Council, noting how people expressed a lack of awareness about the issue before he introduced the resolution.

“I appreciated those sentiments because that really showed me that there is a need for that type of education or issues of indigeneity on campus aren’t really getting expressed or valued … at the place that they need to be,” Bird said.

Xiloj and Bird both noted that many more students attended the teach-in on Serra’s legacy that Bird hosted on Feb. 11 than they had expected, perhaps demonstrating a high level of support or interest among students in learning more about Serra’s legacy.

“To be quite frank I was really only expecting 10 or so people to show up to the teach-in,” Bird admitted. “I thought that not a lot of people cared about the issue or maybe it was just going to be members of the Native community who were going to show up, but there were a lot of people who came … The cultural center lounge was full.”

Finley also pointed out that the Undergraduate Senate had passed the resolution with only one “no” vote, and that the Graduate Student Council had passed it unanimously, arguing that as the elected representatives of the student body, members of the Senate and GSC best represent the feelings of their peers.

Elliot, however, takes issue with the assertion that most students support the resolution.

“I think the consensus from a large amount of the student body is that it’s not an issue that directly concerns them so they shouldn’t have much of a stake in it,” Elliot said, adding that he has been disappointed by the apathy of Stanford’s student body given the potential precedent that the resolution sets.

Elliot also points out that some people do not agree that Serra’s name deserves to be expunged from buildings and street signs.

“In the context of his [Serra’s] time, it’s not clear that he was a bad figure,” Elliot said. “There are some who would contend that even outside of the context of his time, he was ultimately a beneficial figure.”

Although Elliot wants to keep Serra’s name on the University address and three buildings, he does agree that there should be more edification surrounding Serra’s legacy, endorsing the idea of educational murals outside of the Serra buildings as well as more teach-ins and OpenXChange events.

Those measures aren’t enough for the bill’s proponents, however. Hill argues that having Serra’s name on a building inherently glorifies him. Serra can be studied in a museum, he said, but naming a building after him is purely celebratory.

Hill also contends that Stanford’s Native students are the ones who “bear the psychological burden” of this conversation, insisting that it isn’t enough merely to talk about the issue of Serra’s legacy without acting on the mental and emotional pain that people experience.

Similarities with the change of Stanford’s mascot

Many of the resolution’s advocates note the similarities between this movement and the decision in 1972 to change the University’s mascot from the Stanford Indian to the Stanford Cardinal. As in the movement today, student government in the early 1970s also spearheaded the effort to change the mascot in response to objections from the Stanford Native community. The Student Senate passed a resolution in 1972 calling for a new mascot.

The president of Stanford at the time, Richard Lyman, was ultimately responsible for changing the mascot, a decision that was controversial during its time as well, as Finley points out.

Snipp, who was involved in the process of renaming Serra, recounted the story that President Lyman once told him about meeting with students who wanted to change the mascot.

“He thought it was entirely reasonable [and] said he thought about it about 15 minutes and then issued an order that got rid of the Indian mascot,” Snipp said. “And he said in all his years as president there was no decision that ever caused him more grief than that one. But what he did was the right thing.”

Other schools tackle historical legacies and renaming

Several other universities across the country have simultaneously been grappling with the issue of renaming buildings and interrogating historical legacies.

Students at Princeton have pushed to rename the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Wilson College, objecting to the former Princeton and American president’s racist and segregationist attitude and policies. Yale has similarly engaged in conversations about the name of Calhoun College, a residence hall named for John C. Calhoun, the American vice president who ardently defended slavery.

Internationally, students at the University of Cape Town in South Africa and Oxford University in England have protested the representation of Cecil Rhodes through the #RhodesMustFall movement.

Hill points out that Stanford is unique in being founded as a progressive institution, with equality being a particularly important value for Jane Stanford. While students at many other universities are fighting university administrations in order to get concessions, Hill noted, administrators at Stanford are working with student activists.

The future of the bill

Following the votes of the Undergraduate Senate, the GSC and the Faculty Senate, the decision ultimately comes down to the administration. Hill said that his conversations with Provost Etchemendy have suggested that Stanford would be willing to change the building and street names quickly.

Whether or not the resolution’s advocates will succeed in renaming Serra, they have already been effective in raising the issue of Serra’s legacy and the broader question of Stanford’s ethical obligations in choosing whom to honor.

Bird said they realized how pervasive the topic had become on campus when they overheard freshmen discussing it in a dining hall.

“I didn’t really expect it to gain this much traction; I didn’t really expect it to be a dining hall topic,” Bird said. “But I’m glad people are starting to talk a little bit,” they later added.

Many who support the resolution would like to see Stanford honor other, often overlooked legacies through the naming of buildings in the future, and in doing so, “uplifting the voices of actual Stanford graduates, like John Milton Oskison, who was the first native graduate of the university,” Bird suggested.


Contact Sarah Wishingrad at [email protected].

Sarah Wishingrad '18 is a former Desk Editor for the University/Local beat. She is a History major from Los Angeles, California who loves politics, the waffles at Coupa, and all things Jane Austen. Ask her about her dog, Hamilton, at swishing 'at'

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