Winthrop House.

A detail of Gore Hall at Winthrop House.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Committee to review request to dename Winthrop House

6 min read

Inquiry led by Professor Sean Kelly will report findings to Gay, Hoekstra

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the University have jointly convened a committee to review a request to dename Winthrop House made by FAS affiliates last spring.

The review comes two years after former Harvard President Larry Bacow shared the report from the Committee to Articulate Principles on Renaming. That committee, chaired by President Emerita Drew Faust, outlined a framework for considering proposals to dename Harvard buildings, spaces, programs, professorships, and other entities. Each School was then tasked with developing its own process for considering requests.

University and FAS policy allows for a committee to be convened to consider each proposal that is received, with membership based on the perspective and expertise needed to consider the specific proposal. In line with that, each committee will determine for itself the necessary steps to collect information and perspectives from the community or other parties. This engagement process can vary with each committee convened to consider a new proposal.

Sean Kelly, Teresa G. and Ferdinand F. Martignetti Professor of Philosophy, Harvard College Professor, and Faculty Dean at Dunster House, chairs the committee reviewing the Winthrop House denaming request. The committee is made up of faculty from several Schools, with historical expertise and direct experience in the House system. Last week, Kelly spoke to the Gazette about the history of Winthrop and the committee’s process. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.


Sean Kelly

GAZETTE: Why is Harvard considering a request to dename Winthrop House?

KELLY: This past spring, a request was submitted by a group of FAS affiliates to dename Winthrop House, following the FAS process for submitting such requests. The FAS Docket Committee determined that the request was complete and met the eligibility criteria for further review. Earlier this fall, President Gay and Dean Hoekstra formed this committee to undertake that review and to make a recommendation.

GAZETTE: What do you know about where Winthrop House got its name?

KELLY: Winthrop House — officially John Winthrop House — was named in 1930 by the Harvard Corporation, which approved the names of all the early undergraduate Houses. We’re actually looking into the history of that decision. Part of our process is to think about what the considerations were when the House was named. It’s widely assumed to have been named after two individuals, Gov. John Winthrop (1588-1649) and Professor John Winthrop (1714-1779). One was a descendant of the other. We’re looking into the details of the decision to make sure that that’s really what happened.

GAZETTE: What concerns have been raised about these namesakes?

KELLY: These are complicated issues. Both John Winthrops were slaveholders. They’re listed as slaveholders in the Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery report. A question that comes up is whether we should have a House named after people who owned slaves. Another issue has to do with Gov. Winthrop’s role in the Pequot War in the mid-1630s. The Pequot War was between English settlers and a range of Native American tribes on one side and the Pequot tribe on the other. Captives were taken from the Pequot tribe at the close of that war, and some of them were sold into or given into slavery. There’s a question about the precise role Gov. Winthrop may have played in those events. A third issue has to do with Gov. Winthrop’s role in an important document from 1641 called the “Body of Liberties,” a list of over 100 freedoms or liberties that the colonists decided they had a right to. It’s often described as a precursor to the Bill of Rights. One of the items in the Body of Liberties talks about slavery and the conditions under which slavery is appropriate in their eyes. So, there’s a question about what role Gov. Winthrop may have played in that. Lastly, there’s a question about whether Professor Winthrop played a role in either directly or indirectly advocating for slavery in the mid-1700s in Massachusetts and at Harvard.

GAZETTE: What is the committee’s role and who will make the final decision on the denaming request?

KELLY: The committee’s remit is to consider the claims made in the proposal and to write a report with a recommendation based on three options — taking no action, denaming, or keeping the name but contextualizing it. Our report goes directly to Dean Hoekstra and President Gay, and ultimately, they’re the ones who, in consultation with the Corporation, will make the final decision.

GAZETTE: What principles are guiding this review?

KELLY: We are so grateful to have these two incredibly thoughtful principles documents ­— the one from the renaming committee and the FAS process document. Among the most important considerations for our purposes is that whatever decision is made, it should be intellectually rigorous and based on a careful study of the facts and the history, and should involve meaningful engagement both with stakeholders in the community and with various other people. It’s also critical that the decision should take very seriously the significance of the alleged behavior in its historical context. That turns out to be both interesting and hard to think about. History, as you know, is like traveling to a foreign land and trying to understand what people are like there. We want to understand to what degree these people may have been involved in these practices, but also what the significance of those practices would have been during that period. Finally, we really want to focus on what role the alleged behaviors play in the broader context of the legacy of these individuals. How do we think about a person’s legacy as a whole given that these actions may have been part of it?

GAZETTE: You mentioned involving the community in the process. How will that happen?

KELLY: The FAS process calls for gathering comments from Harvard community members. Any Harvard affiliate who would like to offer comments is encouraged to do so using an anonymous feedback form the committee has created for this purpose. It’s accessible to anyone with a HarvardKey. We’ll also be reaching out as a committee to various campus stakeholders and having some listening sessions.

It’s natural to ask how long this process will take. We want to move as swiftly as we can, but ultimately it will take as long as it needs to ensure a careful and thoughtful review. This will be an important decision that matters to our community, so we want to make sure we have the information and input we need before making our recommendation.