University to rename Serra House, Serra Mall following two years of controversy

Sept. 13, 2018, 2:00 p.m.

Stanford will rename the freshman dorm, Serra, and Serra House, two campus buildings honoring California mission system founder Father Junipero Serra, who has drawn sharp criticism for his mistreatment of Native Americans.  

Stanford will also seek to rename Serra Mall, pending the approval of Santa Clara County and the U.S. Postal Service. This would change the University’s official address, which is currently 450 Serra Mall. If approved, Serra Mall will become Jane Stanford Way in honor of the University’s co-founder.

New names for the Serra dorm and the Serra House, an academic building that houses the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, have yet to be determined. According to Brad Hayward, Associate Vice President for University Communications, the University will select the new name for Serra dorm after gathering student input starting this fall.

Not all landmarks that echo Serra’s name will be re-christened. Serra Street, which stretches from the end of Serra Mall to El Camino Real, will retain its name. The dorm Junipero — named for the juniper tree rather than Serra, despite popular misconceptions — will remain unchanged.

The decision was recommended by the Advisory Committee on Renaming Junipero Serra Features, convened by University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne to apply a set of principles surrounding the renaming of campus buildings and landmarks to those honoring Serra. The recommendations have been accepted by Stanford’s Board of Trustees. 

“We hope that renaming the two Serra houses and Serra Mall will remove a significant hurt to Native Americans, other members of the Stanford community and the larger diverse world that Stanford seeks to embrace,” the committee’s report states. “We also acknowledge that respect for historic continuity with Stanford’s founding reflected in our recommendation to maintain the names of other features named for Spanish missionaries and settlers may continue to cause concern for some.”

Stanford’s Thursday decision marks a milestone in a multi-year debate that has been fraught with institutional delays and ensuing frustration from those who sought a resolution to the matter.  

The Advisory Committee on Renaming Junipero Serra Features is the third committee convened in response to the call to rename Serra. An original committee, tasked in 2016 to resolve the renaming question by then-President John Hennessy, failed to deliver a verdict on the matter after a long stalemate.

In late 2017, institutional efforts to address the renaming controversy accelerated. Tessier-Lavigne announced that he would dissolve that group and convene two new committees; the first would devise principles on renaming to ensure continuity between cases going forward, and the second would apply those principles to Serra’s case.

Committee chair and former Stanford Law Dean Paul Brest said that the group’s deliberations, including efforts to perceive the nuances of Serra’s relationship to Stanford history, were thoughtful and constructive.

“It was a very positive and productive process,” he said.


Rationale behind renaming

Tessier-Lavigne maintains that the committee’s decision recognizes the “many challenging dimensions of this issue and the broad variety of viewpoints on it, along with the multidimensional nature of Junipero Serra’s legacy.”

Before arriving at its decision, the committee met with students, staff and alumni belonging to Native American, Latinx and Roman Catholic communities, as well as current and former residents of the Serra dorm. The committee also solicited online feedback from Stanford community members and met with Muwekma Ohlone tribal leaders.

Brest highlighted the meeting between Stanford’s Native American community and committee members as especially powerful. He praised Carson Smith ’19, the Social Justice Programming Coordinator at the Native American Cultural Center, for leading the discussion in a “peacemaking style” that allowed stakeholders to voice concerns one by one and encouraged respectful listening.

“What came through to all of us — and I speak for all the committee members who were there — was a sense of sincere passion about their felt harms that Native Americans felt from Serra,” Brest said. “There was a tremendous empathy and association of Native American experiences wherever they came from, with each other.”

In the meeting, individuals of Native American descent recounted “visceral feelings of harm, trauma, emotional damage, and damage to their mental health,” as a result of buildings honoring Serra, according to the report.

“For many of the participants, Serra’s name evokes the entire history of oppression of Native Americans,” the committee wrote.

Shelley Correll, Director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, wrote to the committee stating that she and her colleagues would prefer Serra’s name be removed from the academic building.

But other interest groups on campus sought to curb efforts at renaming. The issue is of special relevance to the Roman Catholic community, since Serra was canonized as a saint in 2015.

According to the report, Catholic community members expressed their hope that the committee would not “attack evangelism” as an enterprise.

Catholic stakeholders also said the committee should not attribute all problematic components of the mission system to Serra, as some factors were beyond his individual knowledge and power.

“The mission system changed after his death, and the mission system as a whole is more than just Serra,” Catholic Students Association former president Katie Hufker ’18 told The Daily last year.

The committee summarized the Catholic community’s viewpoint with the statement of one individual, who said they would be “disappointed but not angry,” if features honoring Serra were renamed.

As a result, the committee determined that “the harms avoided by renaming outweigh the harms of renaming,” and thus, renaming is “not disrespectful,” according to the report.

In its recommendation against renaming Serra Street, the committee argued that street names do not have the same “symbolic salience” as buildings or Serra Mall. Moreover, they said that retaining Serra Street’s name carries historical importance.

“Retaining a street with the Serra name avoids erasing the University’s symbolic connection with Serra and, in conjunction with a plaque or other marker, can assist in reminding the campus community and larger world of this aspect of the University’s past,” the committee wrote.

According to Stanford News, retaining the name of Serra Street honors “the Stanfords’ desire to recognize a significant period of California’s history.” The news release refers to Serra as “a California pioneer” in “a period of California history that influenced the founding and design of [Stanford’s] campus.”

Because some landmarks will be re-christened and others will retain their names, the committee’s ultimate recommendations, adopted by the Board and the President, sit at the intersection of multiple interest groups.

“Whenever you are trying to accommodate or balance competing interests, the chances are that you are going to reach an accommodation that is not completely on one side or another of what people would like,” Brest said. “That’s the nature of accommodating different interests. The hope is that this is a balance that both significantly reduces the negative experience of members of the community and preserves the history at the same time.”


History of the debate

The renaming effort began when the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) Senate passed a resolution asking the University to consider renaming buildings honoring Serra in February 2016. Specifically, the resolution called for the renaming of four locations: the Serra and Junipero dorms, the Serra House and the University’s address.

The original ASSU Senate bill said that “recognition [of Serra] illustrates the dismissal, indifference and subsequent erasure of indigenous voices in the institution and tacitly celebrates the atrocities visited upon Native communities of old.”

“Father Serra’s actions led to the massacre of thousands of people and the disappearance of languages and cultures, which is a net negative,” said former ASSU Vice President Brandon Hill ’16 while discussing the bill. “We should shift the burden from us … justifying why he needs to go to, why is it imperative that he needs to be celebrated?”

Yet those against renaming argue that removing Serra’s name from buildings and landmarks cannot erase history, and that the renaming movement unfairly targets Serra while ignoring other buildings, such as those named after eugenicists like former Stanford presidents Donald Tresidder and David Starr Jordan.

“If we embrace a system where offense is grounds to remove a name, then most of Stanford’s buildings would have to change names,” Brandon Camhi ’16 wrote in a 2016 Stanford Review article.

The renaming controversy — and administrative efforts to address it — have fielded criticism in procedure as well as in substance. The Advisory Committee on Renaming Junipero Serra Features has previously been criticized for inadequately representing Native American voices in its makeup. Defenders of the committee composition argued that its role was to objectively apply the standards developed by the second committee.

“This is a committee designed to represent the various constituencies at Stanford — students, faculty, staff and alumni — but not to represent the stakeholders who are involved, because it’s supposed to make a judicial decision to apply [the devised] principles,” Brest said.


Facing forward

In its report, the committee suggested inclusive approaches to enduring renaming issues.

“We recommend that the University seek opportunities to name streets and other features after people of all genders and ethnicities, including Native Americans and people of color, and that it consider other ideas for mitigation, including academic and community-wide education programs,” the committee wrote. “Based on our conversations with the groups we consulted, we believe that it is important to their members and other stakeholders to participate in these mitigation decisions where appropriate.

Stanford has yet to address how its principles surrounding campus naming may be applied to buildings honoring eugenicists, such as Jordan Hall and Cubberley Auditorium — the latter of which is named after former Stanford Graduate School of Education Dean Elwood P. Cubberley, who once claimed “east European immigrants were ‘of a very different sort’ and were ‘wholly without Anglo-Saxon conceptions of righteousness, liberty, law, order, public decency, and government.’”

In March 2017, the Palo Alto school board voted unanimously to rename Jordan Middle School and Terman Middle School, named after eugenicist Lewis Terman.

Hayward said that the Serra case was the only one under active review, but that the same guiding principles “would be used to evaluate questions regarding other names.”

The Advisory Committee acknowledged the breadth of the issue in its report and said that its decision is not the final step in resolving this issue.

“Renaming is not sufficient in itself, but must be accompanied by education and dialog to foster inclusion and empathy among different groups,” the committee wrote.


Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly deemed the Clayman Institute for Gender Research the “Clayman Institute for Gender Studies.” The Daily regrets this error. 


Contact Brian Contreras at brianc42 ‘at’, Holden Foreman at hs4man ‘at’ and Julia Ingram at jmingram ‘at’

Brian Contreras was the Daily's Investigations Editor during the '19-'20 school year. Before that, he was a Managing Editor of the news section. A graduate of Stanford's class of 2020, he studied Science, Technology, and Society with a minor in Anthropology. Brian hails from Washington, DC and is pursuing a career in tech journalism. Contact him at briancontreras42 'at' Foreman '21 was the Vol. 258-59 chief technology officer. Holden was president and editor-in-chief in Vol. 257, executive editor (vice president) in Vol. 256, managing editor of news in Vol. 254 and student business director in Vol. 255.Julia Ingram ’21 was The Daily's Volume 256 editor-in-chief. She is a New York City native majoring in English literature and working toward a career in news reporting. Contact her at jingram ‘at’

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