For nearly a year, a group of campus representatives convened by Western Kentucky University President Timothy Caboni deliberated under a veil of secrecy, behind closed doors, as it weighed what should be done about building and college names linked to slavery and its legacy.

Euphemistically called the Naming and Symbols Task Force, Caboni described its work to develop recommendations for campus leadership to consider in the loftiest of terms. In August 2020, as he gave his annual convocation address to WKU faculty gathered in Van Meter Hall, Caboni championed the task force’s work as a way to decide “what we are and what we aspire to be.”

But 10 months on, after the task force recommended the university drop the names of Van Meter Hall, the Ogden College of Science and Engineering and the Potter College of Arts and Letters, Caboni rejected those proposals.

In doing so, he confirmed the task force as the phony pretext we all knew it was from the beginning. Going forward, we hope the university will allow these “difficult and challenging conversations,” as Caboni put it, to take place out in the open, instead of by committees that deliberate behind closed doors.

Ultimately, we believe Caboni made the right decision in rejecting the task force’s recommendations to remove those names. As he rightly noted in a recent campuswide message he used to explain his decision, the Potter College and Ogden College have cultivated international reputations for academic excellence and Van Meter Hall is among the premier performing arts venues in the region.

We’re in agreement with Caboni that these campus namesakes – though they bear responsibility for profiting from slavery – were products of their time, as we all are.

“While we fervently disagree with their views on slavery, we also acknowledge that their perspectives were not unlike many of their time,” Caboni rightly noted. “We should exercise caution when judging those in the past using a modern lens. The decisions we make today also will meet with the scrutiny of future generations. We hope our choices will be evaluated with the same humility and the understanding that after decades or longer of history, views and perspectives necessarily will change.”

However, on other points, Caboni left much of the campus community in doubt about where the university stands.

For example, the Naming and Symbols Task Force laid out the following recommendation that Caboni seemed to walk back in his campuswide message: “Establish a Jonesville Reconciliation Task Force inclusive of Western Kentucky University students, faculty, and staff, and Bowling Green community members commissioned to address reparations to the Jonesville community in accordance with WKU’s role in the destruction of Jonesville and to identify corrective and transformative actions that address the consequences of those decisions.”

Take note that the task force explicitly mentions “reparations.”

In his message to campus, Caboni avoided using that term, writing only that “We will establish a working group to appropriately address the issues that remain from the dismantling of the Jonesville neighborhood.”

It should go without saying that there’s a lot of wiggle room in “appropriately addressing the issues.”

We hope this bit of cautious wording is not indicative of Caboni’s support of reparations – a course of action we cannot support.

It’s unclear what form of reparations the task force was suggesting, and its members aren’t saying.

As far as we can tell from the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause – “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation” – the historical facts do not indicate that the Jonesville residents were displaced in a manner that is unconstitutional.

WKU is of course a public entity, so when the federal Urban Renewal program helped WKU acquire property in and around Jonesville in the 1950s and 1960s, it was satisfying the “public use” requirement of the Fifth Amendment. The university used that land to build athletic facilities still in use by the larger Bowling Green community today.

In its report, the Naming and Symbols Task Force said Jonesville residents “received meager sums for their property,” though it does not list specific examples, which would help definitively answer the second element of the Takings Clause.

In the 2005 Supreme Court decision Kelo v. City of New London, the court sided with that city when it used eminent domain to transfer property from one private owner to another.

In joining the dissenting opinion, we believe that Justice Clarence Thomas said it best: “Allowing the government to take property solely for public purposes is bad enough, but extending the concept of public purpose to encompass any economically beneficial goal guarantees that these losses will fall disproportionately on poor communities. Those communities are not only systematically less likely to put their lands to the highest and best social use, but are also the least politically powerful.”

The replacement of the Jonesville neighborhood is not “any economically beneficial goal.” The land was and remains dedicated to public use, as required by the Fifth Amendment.

Despite the displacement Jonesville residents experienced to make way for WKU’s expansion, we cannot see how reparations would serve to strengthen race relations in the here and now. Likely, it would only breed more controversy, resentment and division.

“Our Opinion” pieces in the Bowling Green Daily News exclusively represent the majority opinion of the newspaper’s editorial board and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints or beliefs of any other Daily News employees.