Name change demands over university namesake’s colonial legacy

La Trobe moniker celebrates a genocidal past, staff and students say

July 6, 2024
La Trobe University Melbourne CBD campus
Source: iStock/ai_yoshi

Staff and students at a Melbourne university are pushing to have the institution renamed because of the colonialist legacy of its namesake.

submission signed by 50 staff and seven students at La Trobe University proposes the change to help “mainstream Victorians” rethink history from an indigenous perspective.

“We do not need to retain names that celebrate harmful colonial ideas, figures or sites,” says the submission to the Yoorrook Justice Commission, a government-endorsed inquiry into injustices against Victorian Aboriginal people. “Although previous efforts in Australia have critically examined the colonial legacies of some university namesakes, no institution has yet taken the step of changing their name. We think that time has come.”

The university is named after Charles La Trobe, first superintendent of the Melbourne district from 1839 and lieutenant governor of Victoria after it gained colony status in 1851. The submission says that notwithstanding his role in Britain’s anti-slavery movement, La Trobe presided over the systematic slaughter and dispossession of Victoria’s Aboriginal people.

His tenure coincided with more than 50 massacres and an 80 per cent decline in the indigenous population, it says. “La Trobe was the chief government official in Victoria during a period of genocidal violence.

“Although [he] never committed or commissioned direct acts of violence against Aboriginal people, he did maintain and exacerbate the conditions that led to this violence, most directly by encouraging continuing settlement of Aboriginal countries by Europeans. [He] did little to prevent it or ensure it was punished.”

The submission cites the renaming of Ryerson University, whose namesake was associated with Canada’s notorious indigenous residential schools, as a precedent. “We hope that the commission will support our call for a name change as part of your broader commitment to truth-telling and justice.

“We invite you to call on relevant university officials to…justify their stance [on] the university’s name and the colonial history that it currently celebrates.”

Campus resource: Can we really decolonise the university?

The university said it had “no current plans” to change its name, noting that the issue had not been raised during “extensive” consultation over its indigenous strategy. “This doesn’t mean it’s not a genuine concern for people,” a spokeswoman said.

“We are always willing to hear feedback from our community, and particularly from first nations students, staff and communities.” 

The University of Melbourne is developing a process to manage site renaming proposals after the issue was raised in a recent book. Melbourne is contemplating whether to rename a scholarship called after Daniel Murnane, a veterinary science researcher implicated in the 1926 massacre of at least 11 Aborigines in Western Australia.

In 2016 it quietly renamed its Richard Berry Building, whose namesake – a prominent early 20th-century anatomy professor – was a eugenicist with a penchant for collecting Aboriginal skulls. Historian James Waghorne, who co-edited the book, said the building had been renamed with “very little consultation” and “no public acknowledgement. That’s not satisfactory to anyone.”

Dr Waghorne said proposals to change “contested place names” should be regarded as opportunities for discussion. “Quite the reverse of erasing the past, they shine a light on the past,” he said.

He said many contested names had been bestowed relatively recently, as part of ill-considered post-war efforts to “connect with the university’s past. Renaming buildings and lecture theatres often is about reversing a decision of 15, 20 or 30 years ago.”

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Reader's comments (1)

Seems strange to obsess over the name of the university, in a city named after a British PM who did not have the greatest reputation, and in a state named after a British monarch. Changing names does not change the past.