De Montfort Student’s Union announced on November 18, 2020, that they were launching a campaign into changing the name of De Montfort University due to the actions of Simon de Montfort – who it is named after.
As part of the campaign, a series of discussions are taking place between the Students’ Union, students and staff to ask questions and discuss their thoughts on the possible name change.
One of these events was a debate held virtually on the evening of Thursday, March 25, looking specifically at the appropriacy of the name from a more contextual basis.
Four professors and one member of the DSU executive team joined together to discuss Simon de Montfort, and both sides of the argument in terms of changing the name of DMU.
Professor Elizabeth Tingle, professor of History at DMU, began by providing context and background to Simon de Montfort, while also laying out some of his pros and cons, something which is important when looking at the name of DMU.
The key factors, Professor Tingle laid out included the major role De Montfort played in the constitutional development of England, the close connections he had with intellectuals, and his firm religious beliefs.
However, she also looked at his major flaws – his faith being a contributor to this, with his strong religious intolerance and the persecution of other religious groups and the fact he gave little to the poor despite introducing a more representative form of democracy.
Diya Rattanpal, the Equality and Diversity Executive for the DSU then went on to lay out the firm stance of the Students’ Union and their reasons behind wanting to change the name of the university.
“I am proud of my university, but it is far from perfect and there is so much more to be done, the one thing I’m not proud of is the name,” she said. “It doesn’t reflect the values and ethos of the university.”
Diya also raised repeated concerns about the fact even today, DMU continues to ‘commemorate’ Simon de Montfort.
Professor Tony Kushner, professor at the Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish relations at the University of Southampton, then proceeded to continue with providing historical context around Simon de Montfort and other Jewish pogroms which happened around England at the time.
One example of this, is the pogrom that happened at Clifford’s Tower in York, at the end of the 12th century, reinforcing the anti-Semitic beliefs which existed within England around the time of De Montfort’s actions. However, he is particularly notable in terms of Leicester’s anti-Jewish sentiment at the time.
“It would not be unfair to say that De Montfort dominants the memorial landscape in Leicester,” he said. “But Simon as we have heard already this evening, had a local impact.”
Professor Kushner, also reinforced the idea of counter-memorialisation and better education on Simon de Montfort’s flaws. This is something which has been seen elsewhere with the statue of Edward Coulson in Bristol and Cecil Rhodes’ statue in Oxford.
Professor Aubrey Newman, professor of History at University of Leicester, took part in the initial naming of DMU in 1992 after it was granted university status.
“They wanted to have a name which was in some way local and that linked it with its geography,” he said. Then later going onto say, “we can’t wipe him out of history, he is still there.”
Professor Newman is also the former President of the Jewish Historical Society of England and during the discussions in 1992 spoke to The Board of Deputies of British Jews, who had no objections to the name.
He also raised various concerns about the cost and possible complications of changing the name, as well as difficulties regarding the other names which could be chosen.
Professor Panikos Panayi, professor of European History at DMU, who was chairing the debate, went on to reinforce the leading role Simon de Montfort had in developing anti-Semitic beliefs within England and the highly problematic nature of his behaviour today.
Staff and students were then able to pose questions to the panel, and as would be expected, many of them related to the context of the 13th century and the possible conflicts of De Montfort’s actions and the values of the university.
However, questions were also raised about the cost and possible complications of changing the name of DMU.
In their closing statements, all the members of the panel wrapped up their arguments, focusing on the importance of ongoing discussion and education around De Montfort’s actions and the impact they may have upon the university in a modern era.