The Devil You Know Is Not Better

Removing Boalt name from building
UnBoalting. Photo by Roxanne Makasjian at

I read with some slight dismay that Berkeley’s Law School has decided to remove Boalt from its name. I went to Berkeley, although not to law school, but as an alumnus of the university, I feel snobbishly attached to anything related to it. These are the hallowed dusty buildings of my youth. The massive 750-person freshman Economics lectures in Wheeler auditorium; a classmate had narcolepsy so my roommate and I would share notes with her in case she missed some key point about downward-sloping demand curves. The steep climb up the hill to get to classes from Dwinelle to LeConte. The opaque glass in the English department offices that rattled when you tapped timidly on it to meet a professor for officer hours. I have fond and vivid memories of the place. Anything that changes those images seems sacrilege.

This is why we hold onto things, long past the time for better judgment.

Wheeler Auditorium Berkeley
My roommate and I would take notes for a friend whose narcolepsy made Econ 101 lectures problematic. Wheeler Auditorium, photo by Allen Zeng for the Daily Californian.

The world is a strange place. If you read the news to stay in touch with what’s going on, it’s a blizzard of cognitive dissonance. There’s an impeachment trial where the primary discussion today is whether they should bother looking at evidence or witnesses. An outbreak from a virus in China that’s rerouting air traffic. Death of a famous sports personality; Britain leaving the E.U. The news often feels like the world is sliding sideways. Someone told me the other day that they found it overwhelming, depressing.

On the other hand, much as I want to stay a citizen of the world, I remind myself (and ourselves, gentle reader) that not all these things affect me personally. I didn’t know the sports personality personally. I don’t live in Britain. I didn’t travel to China and don’t hang out with people who do. If the impeachment trial went the way I’d prefer, would the resulting people in power quickly enact legislation that would really help me? Or would things continue in their slow, inexorable, one step forward, two steps back, two steps forward, one step back way? Must I feel so overwhelmed by change?

There’s a saying:

Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.

Hold on to what you have, even if it’s awful, because among all these scary things out there, something might be worse. It’s an insidious thought, especially because the things that are the worst, which frighten you most, are designed to make you keep them. You may even become nostalgic about keeping them. Instead of gathering facts that might help you make more informed choices.

The Legacy of John and Elizabeth Boalt

John Boalt was a prominent lawyer practicing in San Francisco and Oakland in the last half of the 19th century. He fell in love with Lizzie Josselyn as both were voyaging to study in Germany, after his stint in the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War. According to at least one source, writer William Dean Howells immortalized their love story in the novel The Lady of Aroostook (1879). When they journeyed to California together and set up a home in the Bay Area, Boalt became an expert in mining law and hit gold, you might say. He rose in wealth and social position. For example, when his daughter married the son of the president of Wells Fargo in Grace Church, it was the social event of the season.

When John died, Elizabeth was forlorn and determined to cement his legacy, quite literally. She gave over two pricey parcels of land in downtown San Francisco to the relatively young University of California, which was seeking funds to establish a school of jurisprudence. The trust to build the Boalt Memorial Hall of Law was created March 3, 1906.

As San Franciscans know, that’s an ominous date, coming barely a month before the massive earthquake that struck on the morning of April 18th. Suddenly, the land was worth a lot less, and construction costs soared. Time passed before the sale of the land combined with other donations could reach the $100,000 needed, until eventually the new building was dedicated in 1911. Renamed Durant Hall, the small building still stands, while the growing law school relocated to a large 1950s-style edifice at the Southeastern tip, the highest point among the rolling hills of the school. The school proceeded to churn out numerous respected legal minds from Earl Warren to Zoe Baird, Ted Olson, Pete Wilson… (a surprising lot of Republicans actually).

Legacy of Bias and Intolerance

Naming buildings after wealthy donors is standard. It’s really how buildings are built. Sometimes the donors appear to be trying to expiate guilt from how the money was acquired–this was always said to be the reason behind Andrew Carnegie’s massive funding to libraries and public institutions. Buildings on college campuses are 90% going to be named either for a previous university president or wealthy alumni or donor. If there is controversy at the time, then money, ivy, and the passage of decades will tend to cover it over.

Original Boalt Hall
Original Boalt Hall building, renamed Durant Hall. Photo from Berkeley Law Archives.

In 2017, Berkeley law lecturer Charles Reichmann discovered something in the university’s archives, as part of research into the Asian experience. Boalt, it turns out, was really well known in his time. He did win friends and influence people, particularly politicians, and he used his influence to press for the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This was the first time that federal law was enacted to prevent entry by specific ethnic groups on the grounds that they deemed a threat. Boalt’s essay, “The Chinese Question” was broadly cited by California and national legislators in determining public policy.

Boalt wrote that the Chinese were unassimilable liars, murderers and misogynists who provoked “unconquerable repulsion.”

Teresa Watanabe, Nov 2018 LA Times

Know Better, Do Better

When Reichmann discovered the ugly truths about Boalt’s background, he urged the law school to consider removing the name. Dean Erwin Chemerinsky formed a group to weigh their options and surveyed students, faculty, and alumni. The results were mixed. Many, both from older and more recent generations , felt pride in their association with Boalt Law School. Roughly half were against change because of what Boalt The Place meant to them. A standard of learning, a place for thoughtful debate, and a cauldron for ideas–the university environment can become yoked in our minds with the best of times, the transition into adulthood. It’s hard to give that up.

But I also have to wonder why we try to cling so hard to our stubborn nostalgia. In Boalt’s case, he was primarily known for his targeted racism. He never won a major case; he didn’t champion charitable causes. He wasn’t even associated with Berkeley. The money donated wasn’t entirely from his wife, and there was no stipulation that the name be retained by the newer, more expensive complex built much later. The School has always officially been the Berkeley School of Law, with the Boalt appellation stuck on mainly by those who walked the halls.

It’s true that we have become a culture too prone to point fingers and find fault. Because of the constant outrage machine, there’s also a backlash against backlashes, where people criticize anything they deem as “political correctness,” preferring the freedom of using racial slurs and insulting names. What would Boalt have to do in order to be repugnant enough, I wonder? What if it were the John Wilkes Booth Law School? The Charles Manson School?

Controversy has stirred about other figures, with discussions about Founding Fathers like Washington and Jefferson who owned slaves. The problem with such comparisons is that they had an otherwise excellent legacy that arguably far outweighed other tarnish, whereas Boalt made a name for himself primarily from his hatred of what he called “the non-assimilating races.”

Ultimately, we must use the brains developed in those hallows halls to make thoughtful choices, which learn from past mistakes and move forward. The idea that we should Keep Everything The Way It Is because there’s too much change or political correctness or confusion flies in the face of the change we accept every day. We drive down new roads, eat at new restaurants, handle new products without a blink. Surely we can also learn to use a new name for a building that doesn’t glorify hatred.

I find myself channeling the great poet here:

I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.

Maya Angelou

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