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George Washington University to consider shedding controversial Colonials moniker

Pedestrians wearing masks walk by a bust of George Washington on the campus of George Washington University on April 27. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

After years of protest by students and faculty, George Washington University has established committees to consider requests to retire the school’s “Colonials” moniker and rename the campus’s community center, university President Thomas J. LeBlanc announced this week.

The move comes as colleges and universities throughout the country shed names of racist leaders and tear down statues that pay tribute to the Confederacy.

The “Colonials” moniker — intended to honor George Washington — has long been criticized for glorifying colonialism and ignoring the ways colonists ravaged communities of color, students say. The name is a ubiquitous part of the campus; students get flu shots at the Colonial Health Center, cheer for the Colonials sports teams and exchange “Colonial Cash” for meals and laundry services.

The Cloyd Heck Marvin Center, an event and community center for the campus, has faced similar scrutiny. Marvin, a former university president credited with expanding a single-block school into a sprawling campus, was a segregationist who resisted admitting black students, even as other campuses in the District integrated.

A committee chaired by law professor Roger Fairfax will consider requests to rename the Marvin Center, LeBlanc said in a message to the campus. Another group tasked with examining the Colonials nickname will be chaired by Mary M. Cheh, a law professor and D.C. Council member.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Cheh (D-Ward 3) said. “I’m pleased that the president has confidence that I should chair the committee.”

The creation of these committees represents a victory for some students and faculty who have pressured the university to move away from the Colonials moniker, but LeBlanc indicated that, as of now, nothing has changed.

“I want to emphasize that while establishing these committees is an important part of the process to consider renaming requests, it does not indicate that we are presupposing a specific outcome,” the president said in a statement.

Instead, the committees — to be composed of students, faculty, staff and alumni — will review the name-change requests and share findings with the chair of the university’s board of trustees and the president. The board chair will then determine whether to present the name-change request to the rest of the governing body.

Members will accept, deny or alter the recommendation before issuing a final decision.

More committees tasked with fielding name-change requests may be formed in the coming weeks; the university opened a registry for students, employees and alumni to file petitions to rename other campus buildings and memorials. GW’s Black Student Union (BSU) has filed requests to rename Fulbright, Madison and Francis Scott Key halls, as well as the Churchill Center and Monroe Hall of Government. LeBlanc will determine whether to form committees to consider renaming those structures.

Despite their contributions to society, some figures “don’t deserve to be on our campus anymore,” said Rayaan Ahmed, a rising sophomore and director of the BSU’s advocacy team.

“We don’t have to honor folks that have done harm,” Ahmed said. “We don’t need to ask for students to keep going to bed, going to eat in dorms named after people who enslaved their ancestors. They literally saw our ancestors as property.”

Presidents James Monroe and James Madison both enslaved several dozen other human beings. “The Star-Spangled Banner” author Francis Scott Key was also an enslaver and opposed the abolition of slavery.

The histories of these men are complex: Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.) championed international exchange and education but supported segregationist legislation in his own country. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill helped steer his country through World War II. Many outside the West see him as a racist imperialist.

Ahmed suggested the university end the practice of naming structures after people, and choose names that honor symbols or values important to the campus.

Universities, seeped in tradition and typically resistant to change, are now open to the idea of discarding names students see as offensive. But students have rallied for change long before the current national moment of reckoning.

Students have bucked against the Marvin Center since it opened in 1970, said SJ Matthews, who graduated from GW this spring and served as the undergraduate student body president her senior year. In 2019, Matthews created a task force of students who researched alternative mascots to the Colonial.

“I’m excited. I think now’s the time we’ll actually see action,” said Matthews, who is returning to pursue a master’s degree in legislative affairs. “I’m frustrated it took this long, but if this is what it took to get it done, I’m happy it’s getting done.”

Matthews said she hopes the university gives credit to students who have laid the groundwork for these changes, including more than half the student body who approved a referendum urging the university to ditch the Colonials nickname in 2019. In 2018, students created a petition that called the Colonial a “negatively-charged figure” with “too deep a connection to colonization and glorifies the act of systemic oppression.”

The name is particularly troubling for international students — many will not wear GW-branded apparel in their home countries because “colonial” is an offensive word, Matthews said.

“It’s just not something students can rally behind,” she added.

Cheh said she does not have an opinion on whether the name should be stripped, but supports the way the university is handling the issue.

“Every so often, I think it’s a good thing — you don’t want a cataclysmic event to be the trigger — but every so often it’s good to take a step back,” Cheh said. “It gives us an opportunity to think about what we’ve been doing.”

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