David Hume Tower: Edinburgh academics warn of 'damage' to institution in wake of 'denaming' controversy

Leading academics at the University of Edinburgh have written a scathing letter to its principal, condemning the renaming of David Hume Tower, and warning that the decision has undermined the institution’s global standing as well as the reputations of its own staff.

Wednesday, 16th September 2020, 12:20 pm
Updated Wednesday, 16th September 2020, 12:38 pm
The University of Edinburgh faces growing criticism over its decision to rename David Hume Tower. Picture: Lisa Ferguson




David Hume Tower at George Square, Edinburgh

 David Hume tower sign now says 40 George Square
The University of Edinburgh faces growing criticism over its decision to rename David Hume Tower. Picture: Lisa Ferguson David Hume Tower at George Square, Edinburgh David Hume tower sign now says 40 George Square

In what they describe as a “strong objection” to the controversial move to rename the building as 40 George Square in light of racist views held by the 18th century philosopher, the group of academics said the decision was “simplistic” and “not appropriate for a serious university.”

The letter’s signatories include several of the university’s most respected academics, including Professor Sir Tom Devine, Scotland’s pre-eminent historian, Dr Michael Rosie, senior lecturer in sociology, Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy, and Jonathan Hearn, professor of political and historical sociology.

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In a direct address to Professor Peter Mathieson, the university’s principal and vice-chancellor, they assessed the university’s focus on the Enlightenment giant as “tokenistic rather than principled,” and accused its leadership of failing to understand a “complex” issue.

The letter will add to pressure on the ancient seat of learning to explain the process which led to it renaming the Hume tower, a decision announced on its website and described as an interim measure.

The renaming, the university statement explained, stemmed from “sensitivities around asking students to use a building named after the 18th century philosopher whose comments on matters of race, though not uncommon at the time, rightly cause distress today.”

The statement offered no more detail, but it is understood to refer to a footnote Hume provided for his essay, ‘Of National Characters', in which he wrote that negroes were a “naturally inferior” race.

However, both the university’s decision and the way in which it was arrived at have been the subject of considerable criticism in recent days.

The letter from nine of its own academics – seen by The Scotsman – adds considerably to that, while also raising far-reaching questions about “matters of procedure, principle, and reputation” at the historic institution.

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In their letter, the academics argue that it was “entirely appropriate” that Hume be commemorated through the naming of a building after him, pointing to his “great and locally relevant achievements,” and noting that a university is an environment in which “traditions of intellectual work are remembered and productively engaged with.”

They wrote: “No one is above criticism, and critical engagement with his ideas is entirely appropriate, but we should engage with figures like this in the round, not by focusing narrowly on the flaws.

“Hume’s views on race, which as many have said were common in his day, were nonetheless marginal to his body of ideas. No one would object to a public statement, such as signage on the building in question, recognising and criticising Hume’s racist views.

“Such signage would provide an educational opportunity, encouraging critical debate about Hume and his times. But the point is, those views are not the reason the building is named after him. It is in recognition of his enduring influence in philosophy, history, and political economy.

“His work is widely respected and admired, even while criticised. To address this issue solely on the basis of the matter of one racist footnote is simplistic, and not appropriate for a serious university.”

The letter’s signatories point out that it remains unclear who actually took the decision to rename the tower, and that it had “dismissively circumvented” plans by Professor James Smith, vice-principal international, to carry out a wider review of how the university’s buildings are named.

They reasoned: “This not only undermines confidence in the plan to foster dialogue, it also suggests that the university has already concluded principles upon which buildings are to be ‘de-named’.

“Given other buildings are named after individuals whose attitudes and writings towards race are more programmatic, and more recent, than David Hume’s, then the focus on this particular building appears tokenistic rather than principled.

“The decision on the David Hume Tower ignores the importance of dialogue and seriously compromises the Smith Review - which is of vital importance to how the university considers such a complex issue - before it has even begun.

“This is an area which requires sensitivity, tact, procedural transparency and patience. The peremptory nature of the decision suggests that the leadership of this university do not recognise or understand this.”

The group of academics added that the decision “sends out a message to a global public that the university lacks an ability to deal with these issues with any nuance, and falsely suggests that it has somehow been in error in celebrating him in the past, an error that is now being ‘corrected’.”

However, they also told Prof Mathieson that the renaming of the building impacted on their peers who dealt with Hume’s work, warning that “it suggests the university also regards these colleagues’ work as dubious or disreputable.”

Their letter explained: “Any university sensitive to the members of its community, would consider this impact and consult with those who might be affected by such a decision.

“History contains many offensive things that cannot now be undone. What matters is how those living in the present conduct themselves towards one another.”

The other signatories to the letter are: Professor Douglas Cairns; Dr Nathan Coombs; Professor Grant Jarvie; Dr Gale Macleod; and Dr Neil Thin.

It comes as the David Hume Fellowship in the university’s institute for advanced studies in the humanities is set to run out of funding this year.

The university described it as “entirely coincidental” and a development “based purely on financial constraints.”

It added: “The university continues to encourage students and staff to study Hume's life, work and legacy through its teaching and research.

“In the last 18 months, the university has recruited three academic specialists in David Hume. These posts underline our commitment to scholarship, teaching and learning around David Hume and the Scottish Enlightenment.”

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