Erin Johnson Headshot

Erin Johnson

2020–2021 SCUP Fellow and Assistant Vice President for Strategic Initiatives
Rutgers University

SCUP Coaches (developing list): Jonathan Holloway, President & University Professor, Rutgers University; David Neuman, Founding Principal, Neu Campus Planning, Inc.; Michelle Packer, Chief Development Officer, Office of Undergraduate Studies, University of Maryland

Read her research report.

Watch her research presentation: Naming Issues on Campus

Erin Johnson is the Assistant Vice President for Strategic Initiatives in the Office of University Strategy at Rutgers University and an MBA candidate at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. Formerly, she was 2020 provost administrative fellow at Northwestern University. Erin also worked at Yale University in various roles, including, founding associate director of the Yale Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration, assistant secretary of the University, and assistant to the President and Secretary for special projects. She serves on the Mory’s Board of Governors and is a current member of the Alumni/ae Association of Hopkins School in New Haven, CT. She previously served as vice president of the Yale Black Alumni Association. Erin holds a B.A. in history from Yale University and an M.S. in Higher Education Administration & Policy from Northwestern University’s School of Education & Social Policy.

SCUP Fellows Research Project

Project Title: An Integrated Planning Approach to Naming on Campus

Project Description:

Against a backdrop of national conversations about social and political issues, ranging from the historical and lasting legacies of institutional racism to the #MeToo movement and the opioid crisis, an increasing number of institutions, including dozens of U.S. colleges and universities, have grappled with whether to remove a controversial name from a building, school, or program.

On campuses nationwide, the removal of controversial or contested building names has become a means of redress for problematic aspects of institutional histories and a way to convey responsiveness to the needs (and in some cases, the demands) of a diversifying campus community in a changing society. Following art historian Paul Venable Turner’s assertion that the physical environment of the campus reflects “the embodiment of an institution’s character,” un-naming and re-naming have become tools for realigning the campus built environment with the institution’s core values (Turner, 1984). At the same time, such naming practices understandably stoke concerns about erosion of campus heritage and erasure of institutional history. Indeed, even if an institution can navigate the legal and institutional constraints that inhibit renaming, questions remain about whether institutions should remove historical names and whether such removals actually improve campus climate.

Naming and naming policies are not new to higher education. Building names can and do evolve during the normal course of campus development. But, the practice of re-naming or un-naming spaces because of perceived conflicts between a namesake’s legacy and an institution’s values is distinct, and it’s gaining in both visibility and prominence. To that end, this research project seeks to expand higher education planners’ knowledge of—and readiness for—contemporary naming issues on campus. Building on the master’s thesis I completed at Northwestern in 2019 on administrative decisions and racially-controversial names on campus, I aim to stimulate a fuller discussion in higher education (and among SCUP members) of campus naming issues from the perspective of integrated, strategic planning.

The difficulty inherent in naming decisions is that they require the deft navigation of a complex web of issues and the involvement of a diverse array of stakeholders from inside and outside of the campus community. Many of the campuses that considered renaming during the wave of student protests in 2015–2017 did so without the benefit of guidelines and policies that could help them undertake this sensitive work efficiently and effectively. This project aims to close that gap by developing practical tools for higher education planners that are both grounded in best practices and adaptable to specific institutional contexts.

Campuses and their buildings represent generations of American society, making them both stewards of our history and symbols of often unacknowledged injustices. By surfacing information about how institutions manage contemporary naming issues, we can inform leaders who were trained to operate in a much different naming culture, and arm them with the tools for reckoning with and responding to an evolving campus and campus community.

Above Citation: Turner, P. V. (1984). Campus: an American planning tradition. Architectural History Foundation.

Project Goal & Applicability

This project has two primary objectives. The first is to create a broader and more comprehensive understanding of contemporary naming issues on college and university campuses, and the second is to advance higher education planning by providing campus leaders from across functions guidance that can inform preparation for, assessment of, and response to naming issues at their institutions.

Specifically, this project aims to:

  1. Deepen the expertise of SCUP members and other higher education leaders on issues related to the identification and management of controversial names on campus
  2. Collect and present pertinent data in a format that allows researchers and practitioners alike to benefit
  3. Develop frameworks, guides, or toolkits for campus leaders that facilitate strategic planning and the preparation of leaders (and institutions) for response

Methodology & Rationale

This proposed project requires both developing an understanding of contemporary naming issues in higher education and creating tools to help higher education planners navigate how to balance their institution’s histories, however fraught, with expectations of 21st-century stakeholders.

Many institutions have wrestled with how to address naming issues within their own contexts, but there remains no single, “one size fits all” approach. Therefore, this project will rely heavily on content analysis and historical/archival research (primarily of on-campus and mainstream media) to develop a database that catalogs different approaches to controversial names on campus.

Beyond re- or un-naming are related questions about how to contextualize complex institutional histories, the role of public art in recognition and commemoration, donor intent, community involvement, change management, student activism, and risk. Background conversations or formal interviews with higher education leaders will produce qualitative data that will illuminate these issues and inform the creation of resources for decision-makers. The development of these resources may also require research into decision making and decision-making frameworks.

While some software for analysis and for the proposed deliverables will be essential, the most important resources for this project will be time and appropriate planning with mentors to manage project scope.

Project Deliverables

In addition to the required project deliverables, I hope to develop:

  • A series of resources (in the form of frameworks, guides, or toolkits) that are designed to support integrated planning related to controversial namesakes on campus. These resources will include a summary of best practices and guides or frameworks for campus administrators at various stages of examining naming, from the proactive scan for potentially problematic names, through identification and response.
  • A dynamic, web-based tool (possibly in the format of a Tableau dashboard) that would allow administrators and researchers to easily access and manipulate available data on campus naming issues. While researchers could use this information to inform future studies, in the spirit of integrated planning, administrators from across sectors (e.g., campus planners, alumni affairs & development professionals, central administrators, trustees and other senior leaders, etc.) would be able to use the tool to examine key, defining characteristics that are most relevant to their work within the context of the broader dataset.

Together, these two deliverables could help campus leaders gain broader perspective on the evolving landscape around naming/renaming on campus, identify and review relevant case studies at peer institutions, and use consolidated data to proactively pinpoint existing naming issues and/or avoid potential naming issues on their own campuses.

What do you hope to learn from SCUP?

In addition to the skills and knowledge I will learn in the execution of this project, I hope to broaden my understanding of and experience with strategic and integrated planning. While my master’s project was research for scholarship, it is my hope that through this project, I will learn how to apply theory and research to practice in a way that is useful and broadly applicable across functional areas of a college or university, as well as, across institution types. I am keenly interested in the opportunity to enhance my technical and data management skills through the development of a web-based tool, and I look forward to learning about the work of facilitating strategic planning.

Although I have worked in higher education for more than a decade in roles that are, in many ways, reflective of SCUP’s dedication to integrated planning, I now feel it is important for me to broaden my horizons beyond my home institutions. I hope to build my skills, expand my network, and develop my understanding of higher education planning and strategy beyond the R1 private institutions I know best. I began this widening of perspective through my master’s program and believe that I can continue that work, while simultaneously preparing myself for the next stage of my career, through SCUP.