Tangled up in the name change culture wars

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Deputy dean Caroline Wiertz, pictured above, has little time for those who dismissed the name change of her employer from Cass Business School to Bayes as the easy option. “I say, ‘Are you crazy? It’s so hard.’”

It was a complex process to remove the business school’s connection to Sir John Cass, an 18th-century merchant and member of the slave-trading Royal African Company, and rename it after Thomas Bayes, the English statistician and philosopher. The change, which came into effect last month, angered some alumni, who launched a petition to restore the name and demanded the university repay their fees.

The rebrand tapped into a broader cultural conversation about the way historical figures are remembered and commemorated. One notable example came in June 2020 when the statue of Edward Colston, the slave trader, was pushed into Bristol’s harbour.

This followed the murder of George Floyd in the US by a policeman two weeks earlier. The Black Lives Matter protests that followed led organisations and brands to distance themselves from historical associations with racism and slavery. PepsiCo dropped Aunt Jemima in favour of Pearl Milling Company, and Mars rebranded Uncle Ben’s rice as Ben’s Original.

The toppled statue of Edward Colston lies on display in M Shed museum in Bristol © Polly Thomas/Getty

Bayes Business School is not the only organisation to drop its association with Cass. London Metropolitan University’s Art, Architecture and Design School did so too, as did a City of London primary school. The Sir John Cass Foundation became The Portal Trust.

Elsewhere links to slavery have prompted organisational reflection. Last month, Haberdashers’ Girls’ School and Haberdashers’ Boys’ School in Hertfordshire both removed Aske from their names due to the merchant’s links to the Royal African Company. This summer, Hardwicke barristers chambers dropped its association with Lord Hardwicke, the 18th-century lord chancellor, who helped draw up the Yorke-Talbot opinion that provided the legal framework to legitimise slavery in Britain. It is now called Gatehouse Chambers.

Amanda Illing, Gatehouse’s chief executive, says some barristers were of the opinion “that’s history, we’ve spent 30 years building our brand, we don’t agree with it, does that mean we need to lose our brand identity. Others said I can’t live [with] plugging the name Hardwicke now I know what [he] was. Some juniors were saying, I’m scared of building up a name that no one’s heard of, I joined because people knew what Hardwicke was about.” 

Illing adds: “One junior colleague said it’s like living in a house with a Jimmy Savile [the disgraced TV presenter, now deceased] mural on the side [painted in the 1970s] — you wouldn’t commission a new Savile mural [in 2021].”

In recent years, American universities’ histories have been scrutinised. In 2017, Yale decided to change the name of Calhoun college [named after John C Calhoun, a US statesman and defender of slavery] to Grace Murray Hopper, a computer scientist. Last year, Princeton dropped Woodrow Wilson’s name from the public policy school because, the university said, “Wilson’s racism disqualifies him.”

For Bayes Business School, the process of changing its name was complicated and protracted. As Paolo Volpin, the school’s dean, points out: “Universities are not very fast-moving beasts.” A historian scrutinised Bayes’ past and concluded: “The only risk I can see is that there may be a reaction to naming the school after a clergyman in what is an increasingly secular society.”

A statue of Sir John Cass in London.
A statue of Sir John Cass in London. © Neil Hall/EPA

The business school was named after Sir John Cass in 2002 after it received a £5m donation from its namesake’s foundation, now the Portal Trust.

While the majority of staff and students were in favour of the change of name, some alumni were concerned, says Wiertz. “Most of them don’t live in the UK. If you lived in the UK at the time, you were involved in that conversation [and] people were much more engaged in the topic. But if you lived in Russia or China and are not part of this, that’s not what you think about.”

This is disputed by Vishal Bagaria, who studied for a masters of science between 2013 and 2014, and is based in Kolkata, India. “A chunk of the university’s alumni come from countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the erstwhile colonies of the UK and therefore very much a part of the said past. The least a respectable organisation can do is provide every student, current and former, with a sense of belonging by involving us in critical decisions such as a name change.” He feels the name change is bad PR.

Emil Manchev, who studied for an MSc between 2012 and 2013, is part of an alumni group pushing to restore the old name. “I personally will not be using the Bayes name, same as thousands of other alumni would not use it either. We strongly believe the name of the school has for a long time made a brand of its own and any association with Sir John Cass is by no means defining the school’s identity. We had suggested that CASS becomes an acronym.”

While Gaetano Di Benedetto, a former student and now senior analyst based in Milan, understands the university is keen to detach itself from links to colonialism, he says he will continue to use the Cass name on his CV.

Volpin is relaxed about whether alumni use the old name on their CVs, but says he has discovered that a small group of individuals can have a huge impact on public opinion. “That’s the bigger lesson, the power that a small dissenting [group of] people can have.” He says it seems to be a common view that the alumni are against the name change, but this is not true.

Others have argued the name change does not go far enough. The Students’ Union put out a statement saying the move needed to be accompanied by the school addressing bias in the hiring and promotion processes, increasing representation of people of colour as well as overhauling the curriculum.

Wiertz agrees that “changing the name [has to be] a signal for other things that we are doing, otherwise it would just be virtue signalling”. The school has launched a scholarship programme for black UK-domiciled undergraduates to start in the next academic year. The curriculum is currently under review and there will be lectures on Cass and the history of the City of London’s links to slavery.

The institution’s interim name — The Business School, formerly known as Cass — added to uncertainty. With hindsight, Volpin, says, it might have been better to use the old name until they had a new one. It is hard, however, to untangle the impact on recruitment from the effects of the pandemic — applications to the school, at 5,744, are down by just over 400 compared to the previous year.

He is hopeful the marketing drive around the Bayes name will help to boost the image. People “will, even if they are upset, come back to us and see opportunities to engage and see that the school will continue to grow”.

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