Education

Iowa State unveils name-removal policy after plaque for racist zookeeper sparked controversy

'An honoree may have a history of actions or words that members of the (ISU) community find objectionable'

Two students sit on the grass in front of Curtiss Hall in March 2015 on the Iowa State University campus in Ames. (The G
Two students sit on the grass in front of Curtiss Hall in March 2015 on the Iowa State University campus in Ames. (The Gazette)

Dozens of monuments and memorials honoring Confederate generals and the like have come down in this year of racial reckoning, and Iowa State University recently found itself among the fray with demands it remove a plaque commemorating a student who centuries ago curated a racist zoo exhibit.

ISU President Wendy Wintersteen over the summer temporarily removed the plaque honoring W.T. Hornaday, who attended Iowa State from March 1872 to November 1873 and received an honorary master’s degree in 1903. But, in doing so, Wintersteen noted the campus doesn’t have a formal process or policy for systemically addressing questions of historical naming and honors.

And she intended to change that.

Five months after charging campus leaders to review policies across other universities and craft recommendations for an ISU name removal policy, Wintersteen last week unveiled policy language, principles and procedural details on a new “Consideration of Removing Names from University Property” website.

The policy notes the Board of Regents allows for name reconsideration “in extraordinary circumstances if the prior approved naming may be damaging to the reputation of the board or the institution.”

“An honoree may have a history of actions or words that members of the Iowa State University community find objectionable and wish for the honoree’s name to be removed from university property,” according to the policy.

It spells out principles the campus will apply and considerations it will take in reviewing requests for a name to be removed from ISU property. A standing committee tasked with undertaking the review will ask questions like:

• What is the honoree’s relationship with Iowa State?

• What harm or gain befalls ISU for either using or removing the honoree’s name?

• How does the honoree’s offensive behavior impact his or her legacy — and is the conduct inextricably connected to the legacy?

• What is the evidence and the source for that evidence of the offensive conduct?

• Did the honoree address the behavior in some way, like by expressing remorse?

• Is name removal the only remedy?

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Wintersteen is taking nominations for 12 to 24 individuals to serve on the standing committee that will review the requests.

Procedurally, anyone wanting Iowa State to consider removing a property name must get the request past an initial inquiry subcommittee and then a second review subcommittee, which will make a final recommendation for Wintersteen to consider.

“A recommendation to remove the name must be approved by a two-thirds vote of the review committee members,” according to the ISU website.

The campus will maintain a public log of properties and entities requested for naming review.

First — and only — on the list so far is the bronze plaque honoring Hornaday, who served as first director of the Bronx Zoo from 1899 to 1926. He received the dedicated plaque on the ISU campus after his retirement that year “in recognition of his work as a conservationist,” according to Wintersteen.

But Hornaday in 1906 curated an exhibit that had a Congolese man named Ota Benga living in the “Monkey House” section of the zoo with an orangutan, according to a 2006 article in the New York Times and on NPR.

A Black clergyman who vigorously protested the exhibit succeeded in shutting it down, saying his race was “depressed enough without exhibiting one of us with the apes.”

But Hornaday was unapologetic and said, “When the history of the Zoological Park is written, this incident will form its most amusing passage.”

Benga killed himself a decade later, according to Wintersteen’s message in June, which noted the reporting on Hornaday had recently resurfaced on social media. In that communication, Wintersteen said once Iowa State had adopted a formal renaming policy, “a permanent decision will be made regarding the Hornaday plaque, and the conferral of Hornaday’s honorary degree will be reconsidered.”

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It’s unclear how Hornaday’s degree reconsideration is happening, given the new name removal policy explicitly states it does not pertain to “honorary degrees, scholarships, awards, or endowed chairs or professorships.”

A status update adjacent the Hornaday plaque-removal request — according to the new ISU website — indicates “further action is pending.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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