Name Review Board makes first de-naming recommendation, refines processes

University submits petition seeking to remove the name of Caroline Donovan from endowed English professorship

Johns Hopkins University created the Name Review Board in the fall of 2021 to evaluate requests to rename and/or de-name buildings and programs that recognize individuals whose legacies may now be considered antithetical to the institution's values.

Of the proposals submitted to the Name Review Board, or NRB, to date, one has reached the resolution phase, that of Caroline Donovan, namesake of the Caroline Donovan Professorship in English Literature, housed in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. Donovan donated $100,000 to Johns Hopkins in 1889; it established the university's first endowed chair.

Donovan's husband, Joseph S. Donovan, was one of Maryland's largest and most prominent slave traders before his death in 1861. Upon his death, his wife inherited all of his property. The committee reviewed archival records and documents and determined that Caroline Donovan's conduct and views, enacted and expressed without acknowledgement of wrongdoing or repair, and the use of funds linked to the domestic slave trade run counter to the institution's values.

Based on these findings, the NRB recommended de-naming the Caroline Donovan Professorship, a recommendation that was approved by JHU President Ron Daniels and the board of trustees. Because Donovan is deceased, today Johns Hopkins submitted a petition to the Circuit Court for Baltimore City to de-name the professorship and awaits approval of that petition.

"We do not take this significant step without full acknowledgment of how complicated this moment is, and the implications for many members of our community."
Fritz Schroeder
Senior vice president for development and alumni relations

"We do not take this significant step without full acknowledgment of how complicated this moment is, and the implications for many members of our community," said Fritz Schroeder, JHU's senior vice president for development and alumni relations. "Donors who invest in Johns Hopkins, whether 125 years ago or more recently, are investing in the work of our students and faculty and do so with an understanding of the partnership that exists between donor and the university. While we thoroughly examine the compatibility between a donor and the institution prior to engaging in this philanthropic partnership, we also acknowledge that this partnership is dynamic and occasionally requires us to place what may have been historical relationships into the context of today."

Once the de-naming petition is approved by the court, the Krieger School will initiate a process to designate the funds to a new professorship within the English Department, with the goal of both addressing harm associated with the original funding and advancing the core values of the university—including, as noted in JHU's diversity statement, the fundamental belief that "every person has equal dignity and worth" and an "unwavering commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion."

"The renaming of the Caroline Donovan Professorship presents an important opportunity to take purposeful action in addressing historical iniquity," said Mark Christian Thompson, chair of the Department of English. "We look forward to continued cooperation with our partners as we rethink this professorship's meaning in the spirit of the university's wider commitments to humanistic research and respectful scholarly engagement. Our hope is that the professorship will facilitate work that best expresses the core values that animate Johns Hopkins University and the great city it calls home."

The NRB was established by the Committee to Establish Principles on Naming, a group charged with developing a set of principles and a process to evaluate renaming requests. It is part of a broad, multifaceted effort at Johns Hopkins to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion and address discrimination. A parallel effort, the Diverse Names and Narratives Project, seeks to more visibly honor and celebrate remarkable people from the institution's history, with a specific focus on those from historically marginalized and underrepresented groups. And two historical research endeavors—the Reexamining Hopkins History initiative and the Hard Histories at Hopkins project—are exploring the role that racism and discrimination have played at the institution throughout its history.

The NRB is made up of more than 50 representatives from across Johns Hopkins and from the university's nearly 260,000-member alumni community. The group considers requests concerning buildings, features, and programs at Hopkins through a thorough, deliberative, multi-step process culminating in submission to Daniels and the board of trustees for approval. The NRB has a variety of options, including removing the name; retaining the name, but either relocating the named feature or adding relevant, interpretive information (contextualization) to the feature; retaining the name, but with a recommendation to institutional leadership to redress community harm associated with the name through investment or other materials means beyond contextualization; or keeping the name as is.

"In this first year of activity, the NRB has sought to move with care for all stakeholders involved and learn as much as possible from the first instances of our work," said Sarah O'Hagan, a SAIS graduate who serves as co-vice chair of the university's board of trustees and on the Name Review Board executive committee. "Each case is singular and does not set a precedent for cases that follow. Weighing the prime legacy of any name is a subjective and imprecise process, but in taking up this work, the university seeks to reconcile history with the values it strives to protect and uphold."

The NRB meets regularly throughout the year, but because de-naming or renaming decisions are complex, requiring community outreach and substantial research and deliberation, the process is time-consuming. For the initial proposals, it has taken more than a year.

Changes made by the NRB over the past 18 months include the development of a new process for requests that pertain to sitting faculty, one that appropriately and adequately considers elements of academic freedom. The university's Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom notes that academic freedom is not unbounded, and sitting faculty do not have the right to engage in academic or research misconduct. However, the statement explains that "[a]cademic freedom protects the right to speak and create, to question and dissent, to participate in debate on and off campus, and to invite others to do the same, all without fear of restraint or penalty."

Additionally, the NRB is taking steps to be more transparent about its meeting schedule and timelines, making the historian/archivist position outlined in the CEPN report advisory to the NRB, adding additional members to divisional clusters, and appointing a chair of the NRB. These changes are aimed at improving the NRB process and strengthening its ability to perform its important work.

More information about the Johns Hopkins Name Review Board can be found on its website .