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Magisterial matters: a look back at renaming

Vivian Lang / Thresher

By Shruti Patankar and Emelia Gauch     3/26/24 10:55pm

From wearing jackets that advertise their colleges to disciplining students when their checks bounced, magisters have had a myriad of responsibilities throughout the years. The 2017 change of their title from masters to magisters reflected a debate about whether their once-title, reminiscent of slavery’s use of the term master, correctly captured the essence of those responsibilities. 

Rice’s use of the word “master” was inspired by its use at Yale and Harvard, who in turn borrowed the term from Oxford and Cambridge. The term originates as a shortened version of “headmaster” or “schoolmaster.” Rice incorporated the term in 1956, when the residential college system was established.

With dialogues shifting regarding systemic racism in the 2000s and 2010s, the term “master” and its use in higher education began to gain more attention. 

John Hutchinson, now a professor of chemistry, served as dean of undergraduates at the time of the renaming. Hutchinson highlighted the relationship between the word “master” and the legal institution of human chattel slavery in the US.

“Once you start hearing it in that context, you can’t unhear it … The sense that it needed to change was imminent,” Hutchinson said. 

The conversation around changing the role’s name at Rice began in the fall of 2015, around the same time that other institutions like Harvard, Princeton and Yale were having similar dialogues. Princeton officially announced that they would be changing the name of the position from “master” to “head of College” in Nov. 2015. Harvard and Yale announced changes in the months following, using the terms “faculty dean” and “head of College” respectively.  

The term created discomfort among students, especially Black students, due to the word’s historical associations with slavery. 

In a November 2016 Thresher article, James Carter ’17 shared a story from Orientation Week about parents who were uncomfortable with the term. 

“I remember very distinctly being pulled aside by a pair of black parents on move-in day and being asked ‘What’s the deal with this “master” term?’” Carter said. “I honestly didn’t have a good answer and I still don’t.”

Ashley Buchanan mentioned that the term was especially uncomfortable to explain to others outside of Rice in a March 2016 Thresher article. 

“When I was a [freshman] and sophomore, it was very awkward for me as a Black student explaining to someone outside of Rice why I refer to them as my masters,” Buchanan said.  

At Rice, some “masters'' themselves shared these feelings of discomfort, and felt that the term “master” didn’t adequately address the role they played in the residential college system. 

English professor José Aranda, a previous magister at Brown College, Duncan College and Baker College, explained that heightened awareness and on-campus protests regarding police brutality and systemic racism also prompted conversations. 

“The term was causing a lot more confusion, and it really bothered, and it should have bothered, all our Rice ambassadors who would lead tours,” Aranda said. “Everybody was tired of the other term, and students didn't use it in a way that people might think on the outside they use it.”

“My memory is that in our minds, the harm it was causing and the confusion it was causing was a lot greater than the discomfort for making a change,” Aranda added.

The announcement of the changing term sparked dialogue among students about Rice’s history of systemic racism. Several students wrote Thresher op-eds about the renaming. 

In April 2016, prior to the vote, Paul Onyali ’19 submitted an opinion piece to the Thresher titled “Master’ing Contextualization,” expressing his opposition to the renaming.

“Creating a welcoming environment does not involve banning regular English words because they could potentially trigger some,” Onyali wrote. “It does not involve seeing past all the bridge-building and overall beneficial things that a group of people do for our residential colleges simply because a title was once used in the context of something bridge-burning and detrimental.” 

Onyali later told the Thresher in November 2016 that he was not aware that masters themselves were uncomfortable with the term and felt as if it did not accurately reflect their role. He felt that if students and faculty were overwhelmingly opposed to the term, it should be changed. 

Mahdi Fariss ’19 also submitted an opinion entitled “Un-Masterful Objections” responding to objections made by Onyali and other students who opposed the renaming initiative. 

“Tradition (read: inertia) is not the most effective means of ensuring the maximum well-being of all people,” Fariss wrote. “The net loss of changing the title is likely minimal, very temporary pain for those that prefer constancy to growth. The net gain of changing the title is the use of a term that may more accurately describe the role in a 21st-century context whilst accommodating for an increasingly diverse Rice University.”

The Thresher editorial board also released a statement that highlighted William Marsh Rice’s enslavement of Black people and his belief in barring non-White students from attending Rice, voicing their support for the removal of the term “master.” 

“The ramifications of slavery will never cease to exist here,” the board wrote. “Facetious arguments claiming we must now change the title of “master’s degree” create illogical comparisons: Unlike an academic degree, college masters are in a position of authority over students which implies an inherent power imbalance.”

The then-masters chose to change the term by a vote of seven to two, with two colleges abstaining from the vote. The replacement title, effective starting Fall 2017, was chosen within a subcommittee of then-masters. Dean of undergraduates and former magister Bridget Gorman suggested “magister” — the Latin word for teacher. 

“This change was made in kind of a classic Rice fashion,” said Hutchinson, “We identified a concern. We dealt with the concern judiciously, but without undue delay, and then the community kind of rallied around the change without the kind of conflict and controversy that has often arisen on other campuses.”

In his op-ed, Fariss ’19 looked towards the future. 

“As long as we continue to keep this change from making us complacent, as shown by Rice’s dedication to diversification,” Fariss wrote, “I cannot see this change doing anything but good for our community.”

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