Law school “denaming” sparks donor debacle
When the University of Richmond’s Board of Trustees voted last fall to remove the name of alumnus and donor T. C. Williams from its law school, Williams’s descendants were irate. The board was following a new set of principles adopted earlier that year to ensure the namesakes of buildings, colleges and professorships lived up to the university’s values; the trustees decided that Williams, a wealthy tobacco farmer and slave owner, did not.
Richmond president Kevin Hallock broke the news to Robert Smith, Williams’s great-great-grandson and a graduate of the law school, over the phone. Smith responded with a letter denouncing the decision and accusing the university of hypocrisy and ingratitude.
“It is stunning to me that the University’s position is that there is just one acceptable monolithic narrative, and all those that don’t agree, even people born over 200 years ago, must be cancelled,” he wrote. “History and posterity will judge the University and the Board.”
Thomas C. Williams enrolled at what was then called Richmond College in 1848. He got rich making tobacco products and later served on Richmond’s Board of Trustees from 1881 to 1889. He also donated over $35,000 to the law school—a substantial sum at the time—and gave more to the university throughout his life. His descendants claim that at the time of his death, Williams was the largest donor in the university’s history.
He also relied on slave labor, according to public documents the university provided to Inside Higher Ed. Those records say that in 1860 his company “owned or actively managed” 35 enslaved men and children, and tax documents show that he personally owned three enslaved men. In 1864, Williams’s company took out a newspaper ad offering a reward for the return of two escaped slaves to a Danville farm and plant that he owned; at the time, its chief function was to manufacture supplies for the Confederate Army.
Cynthia Price, Richmond’s associate vice president of media and public relations, said the denaming decision was made in accordance with the university’s “unambiguous” new naming policy, which “does not allow for the consideration of other factors.” She added that educational efforts to recognize Williams’s influence at the institution, as well as his fraught legacy, were underway.
For colleges and universities grappling with the problematic racial legacies of founders and benefactors, renaming campus buildings, endowed professorships and other institutional entities is a common first step. In 2020 Princeton University removed the name of former president Woodrow Wilson, a supporter of segregation, from its public policy school; Yale University removed slavery supporter John C. Calhoun’s name from a residential college in 2017.
So Richmond was not breaking new ground when it decided to change the college’s name to the University of Richmond School of Law. According to Price, no one had publicly referred to the law school by the Williams name for two decades. Still, the move touched a nerve for his descendants—as well as for critics of what they call higher education’s “woke” approach to racist legacies.
In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Smith didn’t deny that his great-great-grandfather used slave labor, though he suggested he may have leased rather than owned slaves. Smith’s main criticism was of the new naming policy and what he considered the unjust public trashing of his family’s legacy by an institution that, to hear him tell it, owes its very existence to the Williams clan.
“The honor of my family has been insulted,” he said. “These unhinged leftists, as soon as you say the word [slavery], they want to demonize everybody.”
After Richmond made clear it would move ahead with the denaming, Smith followed up with a second letter, published on the business news site Real Clear Markets on Feb. 1. In it he called Hallock a “woke ingrate” and “carpet bagging weasel” and argued that the university should return all the money his family has donated over the years.
Accounting for inflation and the “yearly rate of return,” Smith estimates that number to be a little over $3.4 billion—more than the current value of Richmond’s endowment.
“There should be a price to virtue signaling and ingratitude,” Smith said. “If that name is so tainted, shouldn’t they give [Williams’s] money back? Wouldn’t a virtuous person do that?”
Price said there is “no basis” for returning the donations, and that the initial decision to name the law school after Williams was made posthumously in recognition of his gifts, with no written agreement binding them to it. But contract or no contract, Smith said he’s going to “fight for my family’s name and respect.”
Doug White, a philanthropy scholar who specializes in donor relations gone sour, said that even without any written agreement, the university’s decision, while admirable, might have gone over better had officials reached out to Williams’s descendants beforehand.
“It seems the university really turned a wooden ear to the family and its legacy there, which appears to be quite substantial,” said White, the author of Abusing Donor Intent (Paragon House, 2014), about a case of mismanaged donor relations at Princeton University. “The goal of ethical decision-making in a case like this isn’t to make sure everyone agrees on the outcome. It’s to be transparent and make sure everyone at least feels respected.”
A Racial Reckoning and Its Discontents
The University of Richmond was founded in 1830 in the future capital of the Confederacy. Its constituents have been debating how to reckon with its racially fraught history since 2019, when student government leaders petitioned to rename two campus buildings: one named for Robert Ryland, a university founder and slaveholder, and the other for Douglas Southall-Freeman, an alumnus and former trustee who supported segregation and eugenics.
But when Richmond’s leaders first responded to student renaming demands in 2021, they argued against them.
“Removing Ryland’s and Freeman’s names would not compel us to do the hard, necessary, and uncomfortable work of grappling with the university’s ties to slavery and segregation,” former president Ronald Crutcher, the university’s first Black president, wrote in a statement.
Despite his views on renaming, Crutcher formed a commission to examine the possibility; last March, under Hallock’s leadership, the commission released a set of “naming principles,” which the university promptly adopted. One states that no entity “should be named for a person who directly engaged in the trafficking and/or enslavement of others”; more generally, the principles say building names could be removed if the people they belonged to violated the university’s values.
As a result, six campus buildings were renamed last March, including those for Ryland and Southall-Freeman; months later, when evidence of Williams’s slaveholding came to light, so was the law school.
Smith said the entire movement appalled him and hoped to get the message out to other concerned alumni. He acknowledged that a $3.4 billion payout is unrealistic but said that requesting the refund was a largely symbolic gesture. His campaign against the university is about defending his family’s honor, he said, and fighting what he called Richmond’s “degeneration” into “anti-intellectualism, ignorance and a totalitarian speech environment.”
“It’s not all about the money,” he said. “We had ancestors who cared deeply for this school, and we think it has gone off the deep end.”
White said debates like the one at Richmond offer institutions the opportunity to examine a complicated question: Where should they draw the line in using renaming as a way to reckon with historic oppression?
“George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slaveholders, and nobody’s about to remove their names from anything,” he said. “We don’t have degrees of nuance for this question right now, of examining how we honor or recognize our past sins. This would be a good opportunity for Richmond to address that thoughtfully.”
Smith takes issue not only with what he says is the hypocrisy of Richmond’s renaming initiatives, but also with the university’s view of American history, which he sees as overly critical of the antebellum South. His initial letter condemning the denaming decision contained a seven-page essay on slavery and the Civil War, defending the Confederacy and accusing its modern-day critics of ignoring the period’s true atrocities, which he claims were largely committed by Northern industrialists and Union soldiers.
Shira Greer, a Richmond senior and renaming advocate, understands there’s no erasing history. But she said the renamings, while not her first priority for making the university more inclusive, are a real relief to her and other students of color.
“There’s no escaping the dirty history of this institution and a lot of the money that it’s gotten,” said Greer, who is Black. “Still, I think it was a really good and necessary step in terms of actually making changes that align with their claimed values.”
‘Denaming’ Becomes More Common, but Still Fraught
Richmond is hardly the only university to explore new standardized policies on renaming. The 2020 murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor ignited debates over the issue on many campuses. Some universities named for slaveholders, such as Wingate in Charlotte, N.C., have taken renaming off the table; a few hours north, at William Peace in Raleigh, the question is still being hotly debated.
Perhaps the best parallel for the Richmond debacle is a recent case at the University of California College of the Law, San Francisco. In October the college removed the name of its founder, former California Supreme Court chief justice Serranus Clinton Hastings, citing his role in the mass displacement and death of Indigenous Americans. That decision prompted Hastings’s descendants, and a group of angry alumni, to file a lawsuit seeking to block the name change, which they claimed “heaps scorn and punishment” upon Hastings, his family and “tens of thousands of Hastings law graduates, living and deceased.”
Smith, who practices law in Richmond, did not rule out the possibility of legal action. He declined to specify what that might look like, but said he and his brother Walter, also a lawyer, were exploring their options.
Frank Cialone, an attorney who has worked on a number of donor dispute cases in higher education, said he doubted that Smith and his relatives had grounds for a successful lawsuit.
“First, there’s not even a contract or statute to go with the gift. Second, if there were a contract, it doesn’t seem to make anyone a third-party beneficiary. And third, the harm is pretty questionable to the people bringing the claim,” he said. “Outside of reversionary rights or some other provision in writing, the family is going to be out of luck.”
Outside of the legal system, Smith and his brother are leading a kind of digital public relations campaign aimed at “exposing the radical neo-Marxist indoctrination” Smith believes Richmond is engaged in—and, ultimately, at turning other alumni against their alma mater.
The website includes pictures of “woke signage” on campus and blog posts accusing Richmond professors of Satanism and antisemitism. It also links to multiple videos on Smith’s personal YouTube channel, where he posts video essays criticizing the university, from its “eunuch board” to the “communist propaganda” that its journalism department allegedly promotes.
Cialone said that cases involving alleged violations of donor intent have become increasingly mired in the larger political and cultural battles playing out at colleges and universities.
“It seems that more and more of these culture war issues are coming up as higher ed pays more attention to reckoning with its legacy,” he said. “That’s not good for the donors who may have legitimate issues, and that’s not good for universities. Taking that ideological bent is not what these cases should be about.”
Greer said she was aware of the tensions between Richmond alumni and current students over the institution’s racial justice initiatives, but she believes how the university “evolves and grows” is “none of the donors’ business.”
“I had friends who have dorms that were named after segregationists. I was going to a class in a building named after a slave owner,” she said. “For the family, the fact that their ‘disgrace’ was the name removal and not the actual facts of what [Williams] did, I think it’s pretty telling.”