Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Against Renaming Victoria

(Of mostly local interest. I speak only for myself, not for my colleagues or anyone else associated with Victoria University of Wellington, my employer. TL;DR: I would prefer not to change the name of my University, for classically or perhaps just cranky conservative reasons.)

The Vice-Chancellor of Victoria University of Wellington, where I work, recently proposed to simplify the name of the institution to “University of Wellington” or “Wellington University.” Professor Guilford, the VC, argues that Vic’s name is easily confused with the many other universities around the world that include the word “Victoria”, and that a name change would be beneficial to the prestige of the University, allowing us to rise in the rankings. He builds his case carefully and addresses many possible objections fairly; I was impressed by his presentation. Moreover, one must grant that he has made a genuine effort to consult with students, faculty, and alumni, taking their views seriously.

The proposed “name simplification” is not particularly objectionable in itself; no one is suggesting we become the Charles G. Koch University of Wellington or the Wellington People’s Friendship University. The VC also seems to envision the name change process as a sort of gradual retreat from, or a controlled forgetting of, “Victoria” (changing things a little bit at a time, via the normal maintenance budget?), obviating any objections based merely on the potential cost of the name change; no multi-million dollar “rebranding” campaign seems to be planned. Yet I still find myself opposed to this proposal; and I thought it would be good to articulate why here, in part because some of my reasons concern themes I have sometimes explored in this blog, and may therefore be of some slight interest to people not connected to Vic.

Conservatism and value

The philosopher G. A. Cohen, in a lovely essay published after his death as “Rescuing Conservatism: A Defense of Existing Value,” opens his discussion of conservatism with a joke that perfectly captures my feelings about this proposal:
“Professor Cohen, how many Fellows of All Souls does it take to change a lightbulb?”
It’s not that Cohen was generally averse to change; he was, after all, a socialist who claimed that “injustice lacks intrinsic value” and hence cannot be worth preserving. A proponent of analytical Marxism, he was in theory committed to the abolition of capitalism - certainly not a small-scale change. But he also defended a certain conservative disposition of “accepting the given, of valuing the valuable, and of valuing the valued”:
Just as you may love people because of who and what they are, rather than just for the value of what they produce and for the value of what they instantiate, so you may love a lovable institution because it is the institution that it is and it possesses the character that it has. So if you seek to set the agenda for an institution, you must ask not only what its goals are and should be, and how it may best achieve them, but also what it, the institution, is. And you have, once again, additional personal reason to do so, reasons of specifically personal value, when you, collectively, constitute the institution in question. (p. 148)
Cohen does not claim that a conservative disposition (of valuing existing valuable things) should always trump all other considerations, but that such a disposition does provide reasons to keep valuable things as they are, even if changing them might produce somewhat better things:
The conservative impulse is to conserve what is valuable, that is, the particular things that are valuable. I claim that we devalue the valuable things we have if we keep them only so long as nothing even slightly more valuable comes along. Valuable things command a certain loyalty. If an existing thing has intrinsic value, then we have reason to regret its destruction as such, a reason that we would not have if we cared only about the value that the thing carries or instantiates. My thesis is that it is rational and right to have such a bias in favor of existing value, that, for example, if you happily replace a fine statue by a merely somewhat better one, the production of which requires destruction of the original statue, then you mistreat the now destroyed work as (so to speak) having had the merely instrumental value of being a vessel of aesthetic value. (p. 153)
It may be objected at this point that Cohen’s claim is inapplicable to this name simplification proposal. Changing the name of the University hardly amounts to destroying the institution! Moreover, the kind of change envisioned does not appear to trigger standard conservative considerations about unintended consequences and the difficulties of changing complex systems (about which I’ve written here). But a name is not nothing either; and for long-standing institutions, it seems to me, there are good reasons for leaving names as they are, since they come to summarize and even embody the stories that tie people to them. Let me try to articulate these reasons further.

Why Victoria?

According to the University’s website, Victoria got its name as a result of the parliamentary skills of Premier Richard Seddon. In 1897 Seddon proposed the creation of “Victoria University College”. This was not the first choice of the other proponents of a University in Wellington (e.g., Sir Robert Stout); but it was accepted because it was the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria and the House was “loath to disagree” with Seddon’s proposal. (It looked bad to intentionally go out of your way not to honor the reigning monarch).

At least that’s what the Vic website says; a quick skim of the relevant pages of Hansard and of Rachel Barrowman’s history of the University suggests the disagreement seems to have been less about the name of the University than about the specific form the new college would take. But Seddon did use the occasion of Victoria’s jubilee to break the deadlock in a debate over whether to fund a college that had been going on, inconclusively, for about two decades. Wellingtonians were pretty commercial-minded in the late 19th century, and many didn’t think this would be a good use of public funds; but Seddon successfully argued that the establishment of a University would be “a fitting way for the colony to mark the Queen’s jubilee year”.

The historian John Plunkett has argued that the “cult” of Queen Victoria – the widespread circulation of her image, the naming of institutions after her, the production of stories and poems about her, the construction of statues and busts, the grand ceremonies on her anniversaries – was one of the means through which an Imperial imagined community was knitted. She was the first “media monarch,” a great beneficiary of the age of mechanical reproduction whose circulating representations kept the monarchy socially potent long after its political power had gone into terminal decline, an effect that was particularly important in the colonies. It’s worth noting that the symbols connected to “Victoria” did not always have an unambiguous meaning, and could also be used by colonial subjects to assert their distinctive identities and even to criticize Imperial practices; Plunkett has some fascinating quotes from Indian nationalists who “appropriated” the matriarchal discourse surrounding Victoria’s feminine virtues to criticize British imperialism and its martial values.1 But in this case the choice of “Victoria” for the University’s name did serve as a symbolic link to the empire.

Today there are hardly any reminders of Queen Victoria at the University. There is one statue of her, tucked away underneath the stairs at the Hunter building; but it dates from the 1990s (see my photo below), and like many such statues, it has long since faded into invisibility. (I did not even remember it existed until I watched the VC’s presentation; this is a classic example of those “monuments without viewers” that Paul Veyne talks about). The name “Victoria” for the University no longer commemorates a distant Queen, or points to the Imperial community. When students or staff at the University talk affectionately about “Vic”, the name is merely an anchor for all the stories connected to the place; its everyday usage no more implies a reference to a 19th century monarch any more than the name “Chicago” implies a reference to wild onions today, or “Wellington” to the Duke of Wellington for that matter.

Queen Victoria statue at the Hunter Building

To change this particular part of the University’s name after 121 years thus seems to me then to devalue important parts of many people’s identities – the parts tied to the stories they tell about themselves in the places they’ve inhabited. I’m not saying that the University’s name is a crucial part of its identity – all institutions change constantly while retaining their general character – but it is well enough connected to its members’ identities (many live and work, and have lived and worked, “at Vic”) that changing it without a sufficient reason violates the idea of “accepting the given, of valuing the valuable, and of valuing the valued”.

The name is important because it represents an inheritance of stories, even if the institution would not otherwise change very much by changing its name. Students, alumni, staff, and academics are not simply connected to an institution that happens to be named Victoria (and could next week be named something else without too much fuss), but to a particular named place with its associated history. As Cohen puts it, more generally:
We are attached to particular things because we need to belong to something, and we therefore need some things to belong to us. We cannot belong to something abstract. (168)

Reasons for Renaming

Perhaps a name change might be ok if it could be shown to produce large benefits, or if it were necessary to wipe away the offensiveness of the colonial past. Cohen himself suggests that the sort of conservatism he defends is only a kind of “bias”, defeasible if we can show that much greater value would be produced by change (even if one would still regret such change), or if change were necessary to rectify injustice. And one could add here Michael Oakeshott’s impeccably conservative idea that sometimes change is justified as the “pursuit of an intimation,” the development of a seed that is “already there.” But none of these reasons seem to me to apply here.

The case for renaming assumes that the University’s name recognition will improve following a name change, especially in those markets (primarily Asian) where Victoria is trying to recruit students, and the VC is betting that a name change will (eventually) lead to our rise in international rankings, with all its attendant possibilities for increased revenues and academic recruitment. The VC has assembled data showing that people outside New Zealand do sometimes confuse Vic with other universities, and consulted with branding experts who suggest that the best University names consist of two words, one of which must be “University” and the other the name of the place where the University is located. He also points out that Victoria University of Manchester changed its name to “University of Manchester” without apparent ill effects. Support from the Mayor and other city worthies seems to suggest that it’s now time for the name change; the seed is already there.

All of the listed costs of Victoria’s name, and all of the claimed benefits of changing it, seem to me to be nebulous and uncertain. A quick trawl through the marketing literature on corporate name changes and corporate rebranding does not suggest that there are many clear prestige or financial benefits to renaming; on the contrary, folk wisdom in the field seems to be that companies should nurture their names and brands unless they are somehow tainted. From my admittedly superficial scan of a number of these papers (and remember I’m not in this field!), the most one could say is that “renaming” seems to work best in conjunction with other organizational changes, and that successful rebrandings tend to be expensive affairs. In any case, a substantial number of corporate rebrandings seem to be ways for the organization to distance itself from bad publicity or scandal; a notorious example is Blackwater, ridiculously renamed Xe Services in 2009 and then the even more ridiculous Academi in 2011 to try to escape association with the company’s unsavory role in the Iraq war. (This didn’t work too well; many people still refer to “Blackwater”). None of this applies in the Victoria case.

The best case scenario for renaming, that of Victoria University of Manchester, is perhaps less applicable to Vic’s case than meets the eye. There the University was renamed following a merger with the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, which fits in well with the marketing literature’s advice that renaming works best after major reorganizations. Moreover, it appears that Victoria University of Manchester was already known locally as the University of Manchester; so the seed for renaming was there (no “Vic” to contend with). This would have justified its renaming as “the pursuit of an intimation.” None of this is the case for Vic; as far as I know, there was no great dissatisfaction with the University’s name (and various nicknames) among those people most connected with the institution, namely, its current students, alumni, and staff.

In politics and academia, the other renaming practices I’m most familiar with usually come in two varieties, which we might call “patronage” renaming and “revolutionary” renaming. Patronage renaming involves changing the name of an institution to please a patron or a donor; see, e.g, the Soviet examples discussed here, or, for a more recent academic example, the renaming of the School of Law at George Mason University after Antonin Scalia. Revolutionary renaming is the act of changing the name of an institution to honour new leaders or erase the hated past; a classic example is the renaming of Petrograd to Leningrad, or Tsaritsyn to Stalingrad to Volgograd. But the same impulse not to honour a hated past exists at a smaller scale and in academic contexts; witness the discussion about the renaming of Calhoun College at Yale.

Patronage renaming is clearly inapplicable here; the University is not being renamed in gratitude to a specific donor. But one could perhaps make the case for a “revolutionary” renaming of Vic, breaking its connection with a colonial past that is not cherished by Māori, among others. In principle, I don’t think this is wrong. All politics is at least 60% symbolic politics. (I’m willing to go higher with this number, but let’s be conservative). But I don’t think this applies to the case at hand either; nobody seems to be making the case that the name Victoria is a symbol of a hated past that should not be honoured. In any case, as I noted above, by now the name mostly refers to itself – the accumulation of stories and people associated with, and indeed constituting, the institution – not to Queen Victoria.

I am not opposed to attempting to increase the prestige of the University; all things considered, it’s nicer to work at a more prestigious institution. My colleagues do this by producing excellent research, doing great teaching, and engaging with the public in a wide variety of ways; and the leadership team does it too by securing resources and managing them well. But the benefits of changing the institution’s name seem to me to be likely to be too small (how many spots in the QS rankings?) and uncertain (especially when we think about the length of the transition period) to defeat a conservative bias.

  1. This is in an unpublished paper I’ve read, though Prof. Plunkett might have written about it elsewhere. ↩︎


  1. I enjoyed this, thanks, Xavier. "Stick with Vic" could be a useful slogan, if you needed one. But what would you say to Massey U.? A staff member recently quoted comments made by William Massey that were racist and white-supremacist. He asked for a name-change. He might also have pointed out that Massey was a prominent patron of the British-Israel World Federation, and that his government violently suppressed strikes ("Massey's Cossacks"). In Massey's favour, he was a long-serving PM, leading the country through WW1. So, would it make more sense to resist the conservative bias in this case?

    1. Thanks Grant - I like "stick with Vic"!

      Re the Massey case - perhaps it might make more sense in that case (though I should think more carefully about it). I suppose the essence of the Cohen-conservative case is that it all depends on the associations of the name; if there's a widespread sense that "Massey" represents injustice, then a name change would be justified.

  2. Excellent analysis. And you are not alone - I and many other lost-in-the-sixties graduates think that the "proposed" "name simplification" by "retiring" the word 'Victoria' is a bad idea. In fact, I haven't spoken to anyone yet, who thinks it's a good idea.

    (I like "Stick with Vic", too!)