Editorial: Let's stop looking for reasons to erase names on campus

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The Times Editorial Board
·3 min read
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Cal State San Marcos (shown in April 2019) has been among the fastest growing universities in California in recent years. The school will open Monday with roughly 14,500 students.
Cal State San Marcos (shown in April 2019) has been among the fastest-growing universities in California in recent years. (Howard Lipin )

Former state Sen. William A. Craven played a major role in the creation of Cal State San Marcos, a school where more than 40% of the undergraduates are Latino. His name graces a building and two roads on campus; there’s also a bust of him.

At the same time, Craven said some reprehensible things about immigrants, specifically Latinos, who were in the country without permission.

In the early 1990s, he came out with a couple of real doozies. He claimed that migrant workers were on a lower scale of humanity (although he said later that he'd meant a lower rung economically). And then he voiced interest in requiring all Latinos in the state to carry ID cards that would prove their right to be here — an almost certainly unconstitutional and openly racist requirement that reflects an ignorant view of the immigrant population. Research shows that, in recent years, especially, more people who wind up in the U.S. illegally overstay their visas than cross the border illegally.

For these ugly opinions, the university is now considering whether to strip the honors from Craven, a moderate Republican who died in 1999.

As disturbing as his statements were, it is time for the academic world to stop trying to tear people down over things said long ago, when many people voiced similar opinions and societal norms themselves needed wholesale change. People are honored for the good things they did. That doesn’t mean everything they did or said was good.

As a recent Times column pointed out, Cesar Chavez used derogatory terms for undocumented immigrants. He even encouraged reporting them to authorities, using them as scapegoats for early difficulties unionizing farmworkers, though he later moderated his views. Record numbers of immigrants were deported under the Obama administration, which is why some Latinos in Illinois objected to the idea of naming a school after him.

It’s a rare person who did something really good who never did anything bad. And it’s time for the current culture of outrage to acknowledge this and stop looking for the worst in people who contributed more to society overall than they detracted from it. College and university officials should be showing more leadership over this, issuing a simple “no” sometimes.

There are exceptions, of course. Sometimes the redeeming qualities of the people being criticized never came close to making up for the damage they did — as is the case, for example, with leaders of the Confederacy, staunch defenders of slavery or those who massacred Indigenous people and robbed them of their lands. And sometimes the qualities that once seemed redeeming are revealed over time to be chimerical, or the stuff of revisionist history.

Yet finding fault with people is easy. Accomplishing the same kind of good they managed is a lot more difficult. Let’s not overlook the problematic complexities of supposed heroes; Cal State San Marcos’ website should make note of Craven's troubling statements as well has his accomplishments. But the academic world needs to stop trying to erase people who did real and tangible good because they didn’t do perfectly.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.