LA GRANDE — Eastern Oregon University’s Board of Trustees unanimously agreed to remove the name Pierce from the university’s library.
The decision came Thursday afternoon, Nov. 12, during the board’s virtual meeting. University President Tom Inkso said a new name is under consideration, and there are plans for a display acknowledging the history of the library’s name.
Keegan Sanchez, president of the Associated Students of Eastern Oregon University, said he sees the name change as necessary and a way to reflect the modern values of the university.
“It is important to understand where we came from as a society,” Sanchez said. “Without those conversations, we fail to appreciate where we have come from and what we have learned.”
The board during the meeting heard comments from the public and reviewed the final report from the Pierce Library Naming Committee. The board agreed the library’s namesake, former Oregon Gov. Walter Pierce and his wife Cornielia, do not represent the mission and diversity within the university.
“The name is something people take a great deal of pride in, at the same time it is a name that a great deal take concern with,” said Tim Seydel, University vice president and naming committee member.
Seydel said the name of the library has been a topic of discussion and rumors for decades. The report from the committee found Walter Pierce had known connections to the Ku Klux Klan and supported racist and discriminatory policies. While he and his wife helped the advancement of Eastern Oregon’s recognition across the state, the report indicated, their beliefs are not indicative of what Eastern Oregon University strives to be for students.
“As I’ve observed the conversations on our campus as a student and as an administrator now,” Insko said, “I think we can find a better balance between the history of the naming of the library and the legacy of Walter and Cornelia Pierce, but do it a way that is from a historical perspective rather than elevating his name on the campus.”
Library faculty member Katie Townsend said she hears students talking about the name on campus and is concerned and disheartened some students don’t feel comfortable entering the library because of its namesake. Townsend also is a member of the library renaming committee.
“We continue to have students express discomfort with coming into the library. To know there were students out there who felt that was really upsetting,” Townsend said.
English junior Emily Andrews said she she understands and supports the school removing the Pierce name from the library. Growing up in La Grande Andrews said she has heard about the issues with the name for most of her life and she is glad to see something is being done about removing the name.
“Having the library with namesake for that family puts a bad vibe off and tells a story that EOU doesn’t want to tell,” Andrews said. “I think it is a pretty bold move to get it out of there. We know he is part of our history and made contributions to the town and to the library but it is appropriate to have his name removed.”
Two people spoke during the time for public comment, both in support of removing the name.
EOU alumnus Peter Barry said he supports the decision and encourages the university to consider renaming the building with the help of the American Indian tribes. Michael Fields, a business professor, spoke on behalf of the committee for diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility, and said he supports renaming of the library.
The university plans to install a display explaining the history of the library name and the reason for the change. This is to combat the concern that changing the name of the library is an attempt to erase history.
“For me, it was the difference of ensuring we are not erasing history but choosing who we want to honor,” Insko said. “A name on a building from my standpoint is an honor. I do hope when students read the history it continues the conversation about our checkered past. I want these conversations to continue not for negative purposes but so that it causes all of us to reflect on where we are and how we contribute to the history as individuals. History is history, you cannot rewrite it.”
The changes to the library will not be immediate, Seydel and Townsend said. The school will update the signs at the library and update the university’s webpages, in addition to updating stamps in the large collection of books at EOU. This will occur over time to not burden the staff and keep costs low.
“You can’t just do a global search and replace,” Seydel said. “We do expect there to be some cost but largely born out over time.”