Renaming the Benson Auditorium was never “really on the table” during a meeting with Harding University President Dr. Bruce McLarty on Wednesday, according to the author of a petition to change the name because of racism.
Harding declined to comment on the meeting, which was set after former Harding student Jackson House started a viral petition on Change.org that had nearly 18,000 signatures as of Thursday afternoon about changing the namesake of the auditorium from George S. Benson to Botham S. Jean, a Harding graduate who was fatally shot by a Dallas police officer in September 2018.
“Because Harding has not issued a statement or responded in a meaningful way, the petition will remain open-ended,” House said. “Oklahoma Christian University took Benson’s name off of a building on their campus, so at least the petition had that minor effect.
“Our plan is to keep researching and writing about the life of Dr. Benson. He was a very complex figure and his full story deserves to be told. A truncated hagiography does not do justice to the man. He had an unparalleled impact on Harding and, more broadly, Churches of Christ, so his life deserves serious historical and academic work. There is a serious generational divide in Churches of Christ, so we want to reconcile our history to the present so that we do not disregard our history altogether.”
Due to Benson’s history of supporting segregation, House started the petition in early June following the death of African-American George Floyd in Minneapolis under the knee of a white police officer, which led to protests around the country, including in Searcy.
“At the end of the day, it is ‘only’ a symbolic change, but that is a powerful first step to acknowledge what is happening inside of that building today,” House said. “The Benson Auditorium is the spiritual center of Harding’s campus where the entire community gathers to worship five times a week. Spiritually, it is the most important place for symbolic change to take place.”
However, House said that after the meeting it didn’t look like a name change is anywhere in the near future.
“The idea of renaming the auditorium was only briefly discussed,” he said. “I did not get the sense that renaming the auditorium was ever really on the table. From an institutional perspective, that makes sense for Harding and I respect any decision they make on that particular issue.”
House said that there are other issues that Harding needs to address involving race on campus beyond the “symbolic change” of renaming the Benson Auditorium, which House said may be too “provocative” for older alumni and donors.
“I understand that concern, but it is unfortunate that there is such a generational divide among Harding alumni and Churches of Christ in general,” he said. “If the current statistical trends continue, then Churches of Christ will not exist at the end of this century. Because of that, it is important to have difficult conversations now and begin engaging in dialogue with our culture for the sake of the next generation.”
House said that he communicated his desire for Harding to make a statement about the university’s “troubled” history with racism with McLarty at the meeting and said that McLarty told him that the university is “trying.”
Although Harding did not have a statement on that or the meeting in general, it did confirm that the meeting occurred.