Stony Brook University campus in the Fall of 2019. Students at Stony Brook University are demanding to rename Sanger College. SARA RUBERG/STATESMAN FILE

Amid calls for social justice nationwide, students at Stony Brook University are leading the Rename Sanger Initiative, which is seeking to rename Sanger College, citing its namesake’s beliefs in eugenics as a contradiction to the school’s values.

Sanger College is named after Margaret Sanger, an American women’s rights and birth control activist known for founding Planned Parenthood. She also held beliefs in eugenics, a movement that advocated for selective breeding and sterilization for the mentally ill. Sanger is one of the five colleges that make up Tabler Quad, the Undergraduate College of Arts, Culture, and Humanities (ACH). 

The student-led group started to promote their cause on social media in early September. They have also posted a petition on Change.org, which is more than half the way to its intended signature goal of 500. 

“It’s time for Stony Brook University to move away from this eugenic past and make the university more inclusive,” the petition states. “The longer we wait, the more we stand behind these horrific views.”

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The group is run by Caitlyn Miller, a junior mathematics major, and Malhar Virda, a junior political science major. Splitting responsibilities, with Miller designing the social media posts and Virda handling communications, the two planned the idea after Virda learned of Sanger’s support of eugenics while taking POL 313: Problems in International Relations this past summer.

Planned Parenthood, a nonprofit group that provides reproductive healthcare, announced their plan to remove Sanger’s name from their New York City Health Center this past July.

“We don’t believe Sanger is the worst person to live — she accomplished a lot of good,” Virda said. “But does our morality allow us to see a Stony Brook building named after someone who has such a problematic past?”

This initiative arose following the announcement of the Renaming Buildings, Spaces and Structures Ad Hoc Committee in a campus wide email sent on Sept. 4 from Judith B. Clarke, the Vice President for Equity & Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer. The committee plans to develop principles and procedures to handle requests and questions of that nature.

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“As one of the most diverse public research institutions in the nation, our University is defined by its commitment to the advancement of knowledge and social responsibility,” Clarke wrote in the email. “Our equitable and inclusive community is the reason we have achieved all we have, and this fact will provide the foundation for this newly created committee.”

College campuses have long served as grounds for social action, dating back to protests during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and ’70s. In recent years, schools across the United States have renamed buildings following community outlash, including Princeton and Yale universities.

The Rename Sanger petition requests that the committee rename Sanger College. However, Clarke explained that the committee does not have the power to change a building’s name. Rather, they will set the guidelines by which future cases, like Sanger College, will be evaluated.

“It is important to ensure the preservation of history without perpetuating inequality and injustice,” Clarke said. “We must thoughtfully build inclusive and welcoming communities. To find these solutions, we must engage in thoughtful dialogue and compromise.”

If a building’s name is in question after this process, a new Renaming Committee would be established to review that specific case, Clarke said to The Statesman. Recommendations to change the name would then be given to President Maurie McInnis.

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Despite the formation of the Renaming Buildings Committee, some students believe that the school could do more to hear calls for equality.

A document created by various student leaders titled “Initial Priorities to Address Structural and Systemic Racism and Discrimination Towards Black and Brown Student Communities at Stony Brook University” outlines initiatives the school should take to better address structural issues important to minorities in the student body. 

Violette Walker, a junior astronomy major and vice president of the Black Student Union, is a contributor to the document and a member of the Campus, Community and Personal Safety Advisory Committee.

She said the Rename Sanger Initiative is well overdue and the formation of the Renaming Buildings Committee, while a good step forward, was “the very least that the school could do.”

“I believe that the school is relying too heavily on the labor of Black and Brown students to hold the administration accountable for their lack of diversity and cluelessness on how to foster an inclusive community,” Walker said. “We should not have to beg the school to create a safe space for us, but unfortunately we’ve been doing that for years now.”

Senior political science major Justin Burns also contributed to the document. He was glad both students and administration were taking action to address Sanger’s problematic history.

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The importance of students taking action remains important for Burns, who is a member of the Black Student-Athlete Huddle. He said that students often have the passion to take action but don’t always have the platform, which is why Stony Brook should promote the different cultures of its diverse student population.

“Stony Brook should embrace the people who live on campus — to make them feel welcome, like they claim they want to, to uplift the students and show them they’re worth something,” Burns said. “Actions are important — not just names. Names are only a part of the problem, but it’s what we do together that’ll make the change.”

For Annabell Abelard, a junior psychology major and member of the Caribbean Student Organization, promoting culture is vital to achieving unity. 

“Seeing Black culture included more on campus would be great,” she said. “Maybe a safe space for Black students. Art students can help paint a communal mural — the aesthetic could change for the better.”

The Renaming Buildings Committee is hoping to set guidelines and share their results by December.

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