Ryerson University is facing growing calls from its faculty to change the name of the university after a campus statue honouring its namesake, Egerton Ryerson, was toppled following a sit-in to honour the victims of residential schools.
More than 380 faculty signed a letter sent to president Mohamed Lachemi on Monday asking that the Toronto university’s name be changed. Many faculty have begun referring to the school as “X University,” following the lead of Indigenous students who last month launched a campaign to stop using the Ryerson name.
“There remains no cover or excuse to turn away from the truth about the namesake of our university,” said the letter signed by faculty. “Symbols of oppression and genocide that are diametrically opposed to our stated values of equity, diversity and inclusion have no place in our community.”
Mr. Ryerson, a 19th-century educational reformer, played a role in the design of Canada’s residential school system, which aimed to separate Indigenous children from their families and was responsible for inflicting decades of harm on Indigenous communities. A debate has raged for years at the university about whether to keep the Ryerson name, which the institution adopted when it was founded as an institute of technology in 1948.
Protests gathered steam in recent weeks after a B.C. First Nation announced the discovery of the bodies of more than 200 children in unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, which led to an outpouring of grief across the country.
On Sunday evening a sit-in convened on Ryerson’s downtown campus near the statue of Mr. Ryerson, which had been defaced with red paint and graffiti the previous week. Shortly after the demonstration broke up, a truck with a rope attached pulled the statue of Mr. Ryerson off its plinth and down into the street. Later, photos circulating on social media showed the statue’s head had been severed and dropped in Lake Ontario.
Dr. Lachemi said Monday the statue would not be restored or replaced. The question of what to do with the statue had been among those being considered by a task force convened by the president to address the legacy of Mr. Ryerson.
The Standing Strong (Mash Koh Wee Kah Pooh Win) task force has a mandate that includes assessing whether to change the university’s name, Dr. Lachemi said Monday. Its report is due by September. The university administration has asked for patience as it awaits the committee’s recommendations on how best to deal with Mr. Ryerson’s legacy.
In a statement, the committee said it would not speed up its work despite calls from students and others in the community to take immediate action.
“Despite the urgency expressed by some this week for immediate change, it is vital that we respect our commitment to the community for a transparent process. Only by following the process we laid out can we ensure that the community has the information necessary to understand the recommendations we put forward,” co-chairs Joanne Dallaire and Catherine Ellis said in a statement.
“Our community holds diverse views on many topics, including the name of our institution. At our core, this is what universities are all about: We are a place where difficult subjects are discussed, attitudes are challenged, and alternatives are suggested and considered,” Dr. Lachemi said.
Shiri Pasternak, a professor of criminology at Ryerson, is among the faculty who signed the petition. She called it a “moment of reckoning” for the university.
“I do feel that there is change in the air. And I think even in this transitional moment, when we’re referring to ourselves as students or faculty at X University, there’s a real sense of anticipation and relief at not having to use the name. It has been really empowering and inspiring for us to imagine that change,” Prof. Pasternak said.
What may come next, should the university decide to rename itself, is not yet clear.
Prof. Pasternak said a renaming process would likely take time. It should involve consultation, particularly with Indigenous groups, she said.
POSTSECONDARY EDUCATION REPORTER
The Globe and Mail, June 7, 2021