The Arb deserves a better name

David Eide – Opinion Columnist

On October 12, it was announced that the Linnaeus Arboretum would be renamed to “The Arboretum at Gustavus”. I was fully supportive of stripping the name of Carl Linnaeus from the arboretum as several of his ideas contributed to the development of scientific racism in the 19th century. Keeping his name affixed to the arboretum would have done far more harm than good and its removal was necessary to ensure that the college lives up to its values.
However, I do find myself taking issue with the replacement name. “The Arboretum at Gustavus” is less of an actual name and more of a generic descriptor that doesn’t speak to anything unique about the location or really say much of anything at all. I believe that our arboretum deserves a name that speaks to its best elements, to its long history as a keystone of our campus. The current name simply feels too much like a placeholder and hopefully that’s what it ends up being.
Of course, the point will be raised if we really want to name locations after prominent individuals. After all, one needs only to look at the long list of naming controversies in the past couple of years to see the risks of honoring figures from the past by naming locations after them. What seems uncontroversial to us may not seem that way to those in the future. Furthermore, there is a legitimate question as to whether naming locations after individuals really fits within our 21st-century perspectives that tend to avoid the lionization of any singular figure. I think that this is a fair point, however, I think that there are several benefits to this naming scheme that are lost if we abandon it. For one, it can serve as an important connector with our past, reminding us of the long history we now find ourselves a part of.
Secondly, when chosen with some amount of thought, the names can properly represent values of respect, progress, and inclusivity. Consider Robert E. Lee High School in Virginia. In 2020, following the racial reckoning stemming from the murder of George Floyd, it was unanimously voted by the local board to strip the name of the confederate general from the school and replace it with that of John Lewis, a prominent civil rights leader, and congressman. This is exactly the kind of example Gustavus should be following.
The question then arises as to what the Arb should be renamed to if not “The Arboretum at Gustavus”. I’ve been mulling over this question for a while, and I’ve come up with a small but by no means definitive list of candidates. One option that may bear fruit is renaming the arb after the individuals who were most responsible for its existence in the first place. This includes former President of the college Frank Barth, who dedicated the land that now makes up the arb in 1973, or Dr. Charles Mason, an associate professor of Biology at the time who oversaw the project and was eventually appointed arboretum director. It wouldn’t be unprecedented to name a location on campus after a prominent faculty member, see the Charles C. Jackson Center or the Don Roberts Ice Arena.
Of course, a new name need not be limited to those directly connected to Gustavus, after all, it’s not as if Carl Linnaeus ever taught at Gustavus. Indeed, the renaming of the arb presents an opportunity to honor scientists from underrepresented groups who have not received the acclaim that they so rightfully deserve. For example, the Arb could be named after Ynés Mexía, a prominent Mexican American botanist who got into the field quite late in her life but nevertheless collected over 150,000 during her unfortunately short time in the field. Another potential candidate is the esteemed biologist Rachel Carson whose best-selling book Silent Spring is credited with advancing the nascent environmental movement. Either of these women would represent the ideals of Gustavus far better than Carl Linnaeus did.
The hypothetical names that I have presented here are just the start as there are potentially hundreds of worthy candidates. I think that the best way forward would be to repurpose the already existing deliberation group regarding the Arboretum into a forum regarding a potential new name for the arboretum. This would allow for an inclusive discussion about renaming the arb. The arb is one of my favorite locations on campus and it deserves a more distinct name than the one it currently holds.

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