After Western Kentucky University President Timothy Caboni announced this semester that WKU will reexamine “problematic” names on campus – particularly those tied to former slaveholders – a group of students and staff is taking up the topic through ongoing talks.
Molly Kerby, an associate professor and assistant provost at WKU, recently led one of the deliberative dialogue events, which was held over Zoom and aimed to foster open conversations about race and racism in a structured setting, she said.
Although the group discussed possible solutions to the renaming issue, Kerby said it is not actually working with a separate university task force charged with exploring options for university leadership to consider.
WKU spokesman Bob Skipper told the Daily News on Tuesday that the group hasn’t met since Caboni announced its formation in August.
“The purpose is not for an outcome,” Kerby said of the deliberative dialogue events. “These are about just having conversations. The president has a task force that’s looking into this.”
Instead, Kerby said the event aimed to help students and staff unpack a complicated topic and achieve some shared understanding about it. Participants broke out into groups and worked with moderators to facilitate the discussion.
“It’s just to give people an exercise on how you come to a consensus about something. How do you come to a consensus when you have a conversation?” Kerby said.
To help guide the conversation, Kerby looked at how other universities have reckoned with namesakes linked to slavery and submitted several hypothetical proposals for the group to consider. George Mason University, which recently grappled with the legacy of its slaveholding namesake, acted as one case study, Kerby said.
“I knew that they decided not to change the name of their university, but they opened a center and a memorial fund,” Kerby said, adding that other universities have outright removed controversial names or responded in other ways.
Going forward, and with a similar event planned for next month, Kerby said she hopes the talks will enable more open conversations about race and racism on campus.
“I want to see if we can raise the bar on that a little bit,” she said. “How comfortable are you about talking about these situations?”