Students, faculty, and staff at UC San Diego are pushing to rename John Muir College in response to Muir’s history of racism.
According to Muir College Provost and Professor of Ethnic Studies K. Wayne Yang, the release of the Sierra Club’s statement acknowledging Muir’s relationships with white supremacists and derogatory remarks about Black and Indigenous communities has spurred Muir students, faculty, and alumni to discuss Muir’s controversial legacy. Specifically, Muir’s connection with Indigenous dispossession and racism in environmentalism.
“Faculty overwhelmingly want to address Muir’s problematic legacy,” said Yang in a statement to The Triton. “Some express that they hope we can do it without simply villainizing Muir.”
Muir College Council President Eleanor Grudin said this is old news for Muir students. During the 2019-20 school year, UCSD student Sachiko Woo created a proposal to rename the college, with a focus on a critical education on Muir and environmental justice. However, this proposal could not roll out as scheduled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As remote learning continues into the 2020-21 school year, Grudin and Yang are looking to create online spaces where students and faculty can discuss these criticisms of Muir.
Meanwhile, Indigenous students continue to grapple with Muir’s impact on their communities and how his legacy has affected their experience at UCSD. Anthony Hurtado, a third-year Public Health major and member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, said he admired Muir’s role in environmental preservation, but felt disappointed about Muir’s disregard for Indigenous peoples’ land rights.
“Some issues that I hope [UCSD] can tackle by renaming the college are educating those who are unaware of the disregard of Native Americans when it comes to national parks,” said Hurtado. “It would make it much more clear to those who don’t understand the situation at hand. I think they should also work to further strengthen the loose ties between Native students and the university. And by that I mean actually listening to the concerns we have and using that to make much more conscientious decisions that are more inclusive.”
Anah Esquerio, a Native-American alum, initially felt proud to be attending Muir College due to Muir’s contributions to exploration, environmentalism, and sustainability, but became more critical after discovering his history of racism. This led her to join communities at UCSD that she felt were creating a space for solidarity, such as the Native American Student Alliance (NASA) and the Student Promoted Access Center for Education and Services (SPACES).
“All of the sudden, the promotion of the environment felt like they fell flat,” Esquerio said. “This is when I started to look critically a bit more at the university.”
Like Hurtado, she feels that UCSD can do more to support its Indigenous students. Esquerio believes that if UCSD is to amend “past atrocities” like holding onto Indigenous remains, the university must build more trusting relationships with Indigenous communities.
“I think the name change is a great start but more work certainly needs to be done on campus,” she said. “I think UCSD administration can do more to support the underserved communities as a whole on campus.”
According to Yang, their goal is not just renaming the college, but also centering environmental and climate justice, and how they continue to affect Indigenous, Black, and Latinx communities. To accomplish this, Yang believes Muir must center indigenous voices, including the Kumeyaay and Indigenous groups close to the university as well as students.
Currently, there is no formal process for renaming buildings at UCSD. Yang states that governing bodies like the Muir College Council, Muir faculty, and the Muir Faculty Executive Committee would likely be involved in deciding on a name change.
In 2018, Muir College held a faculty symposium called “After the West: Rethinking John Muir’s Legacy” featuring Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan, who spoke about Indigenous relocation.
“From an ethnic studies viewpoint, ‘Was John Muir a racist’ is not the fundamental question,” said Yang. “The questions are: ‘How can we address environmental racism? How can we honor Indigenous sovereignty? How can we act for climate justice?’ The answers to these questions should guide us in our path forward.”
Julianna Domingo is a Staff Writer for The Triton. You can follow her @coolyannaa.