Updated: Sept. 23, 2019 at 2:05 p.m.
Student leaders are doubling down on efforts to change the Colonials nickname.
Student Association President SJ Matthews filed an executive order Sunday calling for the creation of the “Colonial Moniker Task Force,” a five-student committee that will research monikers to replace the Colonial, adding to an ongoing student push to change the nickname. Student leaders said they are building off of the momentum from this spring when just more than half of voting students backed the name change.
“I ran for student body president to hear the needs and the wants of the student body, and it is my job to make sure our students feel included everywhere on this campus,” Matthews said. “We have a portion of the student body who are offended by the moniker. We have to change it.”
André Gonzales, who stepped down from his position as the SA’s pro tempore Sunday to serve as the SA’s director of legacy review, will chair the task force, Gonzales said. The vice president for diversity and inclusion, the vice president for public affairs, the vice president for student activities and the director of student advocacy will also serve on the task force, according to the order.
The order states that the SA should appoint four senators to the task force, one of whom is required to be a graduate senator.
About 54 percent of students approved a referendum last spring calling on the University to swap the Colonials moniker for a less “offensive” name, but officials have not taken a position on whether they support the switch.
Gonzales said the University has the opportunity to hold a “unique conversation” with students, officials and alumni reflecting on the school’s history and to alleviate students’ “discomfort” with the moniker as GW approaches its bicentennial in 2021.
“Right now, we are in such a unique and imperative time where we can make this type of change because we are at this bicentennial,” he said. “We are able to say that this is the legacy that we want this University to have.”
Students launched a petition in April 2018 calling on the University to ditch the Colonials moniker. In February, a panel including two sociology professors and a former ambassador to the United States discussed the merits of the nickname.
Gonzales said he hopes the task force can continue meeting with students, alumni and administrators – like officials from the Office of Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement and the Office of Alumni Relations – throughout the year. In previous conversations, he said officials and alumni have been “hesitant to move forward” because the referendum only passed by a slim margin in the spring.
“We need to make sure that we are, No. 1, honoring the legacy of this University, but also honoring the legacy that current students want this University to have,” Gonzales said.
Matthews, the SA president, said she will present a report to the Board of Trustees in May that will outline alternatives for the Colonials moniker that the task force will spend the academic year researching. She said the SA Senate has up to the next three meetings to codify the task force.
Matthews said she wants the task force to create a survey or hold community forums to collect data on who supports the change and compile the information in a report to the board. She added that she hopes the board will take “strong action” to change the name after reviewing the task force’s report.
“This has been a conversation that’s been ongoing for quite a while now, and I think there finally needs to be action taken on it,” she said. “You get nowhere sidestepping an issue, just saying, ‘Oh we’ll deal with it.’ We have to engage everybody.”
Georgie Britcher, the SA’s former director for diversity and inclusion who stepped down earlier this semester, declined to comment.
Hayley Margolis, a former SA senator, restarted the push last academic year to change the moniker after student efforts stalled. Margolis said she and Gonzales will simultaneously focus this year on growing the “Anything But Colonials Coalition,” a student group separate from the task force that will recruit students to join the effort by talking to students in residence halls and hanging posters around campus.
Margolis said the task force will likely send a few people to meet with administrators to advance its agenda. But the coalition will boost advocacy efforts for changing the moniker among current students, parents and alumni, she said.
“That’s a great way, right, to have very direct conversations, but there are other ways of advocacy, which is getting masses of people and lots of people to have a platform and share their voice,” she said. “That’s more of the opportunity for advocacy and activism beyond the SA, which is what we’d like to try to do with ‘Anything But Colonials Coalition.’”
She said students have called on the University itself since last year to create an “official” task force of students, parents, alumni and administrators to advocate for the change, but the University has not acted on their request.
“We’ve taken every event, meeting and platform as an opportunity to emphasize that the best next step for administration is to create an official task force, representative of a cross section of the GW community, to investigate what other symbols represent the GW community identity and research a potential short list of alternatives which all of GW could come together and vote on,” she said.
This post was updated to reflect the following correction:
Georgie Britcher is the SA’s former director, not vice president, for diversity and inclusion.