Building name task force members eager to tackle issue in ‘systematic’ way

Media Credit: Sophia Young | Photographer

André Gonzales, the SA’s director of legacy review, said the conversation about building naming comes at a “pivotal point” in the University’s history, as GW will celebrate its bicentennial in 2021.

Members of the Board of Trustees’ new task force on building naming policies say they will spend the year developing recommendations to guide name change procedures moving forward.

The Task Force on Naming, which officials announced Thursday, includes 17 members who will deliver recommendations to the board about principles to guide naming, name change procedures and circumstances that merit consideration of name change requests by the end of the academic year. Taskforce members include students and faculty who have previously voiced support for changing the Colonials moniker or some campus building names with “problematic” pasts.

Board Chair Grace Speights, an ex-officio member of the group, said discussions surrounding the task force’s creation took place “over many months.” She said officials launched the group following years of national debate around “acknowledging and confronting history” at universities across the country.

“Institutions of higher education have led the charge in these areas as they have considered renaming buildings, facilities and other public spaces,” she said in an email. “GW has its own history that we must explore, and we need a framework in place to be able to advance these discussions.”

The members of the commission include four officials like Vice Provost for Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement Caroline Laguerre-Brown and Vice President for External Relations Lorraine Voles, four trustees, an emeritus trustee, three students, three faculty and two alumni.

“It’s really important to make sure that the current GW that we have – the administration, our values – match who we actually are.”

Speights said task force membership was intentionally selected to include a “diverse” selection of members of the GW community. She said community members will receive more information about how to give feedback to members of the group after the task force has convened.

She said the group will spend the year drafting recommendations and will submit their findings to the board for review by the end of the year.

“Over the coming months, the task force will meet regularly and provide opportunities for community input,” she said in an email.

Trustee Mark Chichester, the chair of the task force, did not return multiple requests for comment.

The task force’s creation comes after Student Association leaders proposed a set of guidelines for administrators to adopt regarding building names. The proposed rules state that officials should revoke building names if the individual for whom the building was named has engaged in behavior “inconsistent” with GW’s values that “jeopardizes the University’s reputation and public trust.”

Denver Brunsman, an associate professor of history who serves on the task force, said administrators invited him to participate, and the group is in the process of scheduling their first meetings.

Brunsman has previously expressed his support for changing the Colonials moniker, but officials have been cautious to take a public stance on that movement.

“By setting up this task force and setting up guidelines, it will ultimately help with any future name change that will be seen as credible and something that people can have trust and that it went through a fair process,” Brunsman said.

Brunsman added that allowing the community to provide feedback to the task force is a “positive measure” because it will help build trust in the process and allow everyone to voice their opinions.

“Even though the committee is diverse and that it represents many constituencies, it can never represent everyone,” he said. “By making that opportunity available, I think that’s really smart.”

Shelby Singleton, a student serving on the task force and the Student Association’s former vice president for diversity and inclusion, said creating the group is an “amazing” step in realigning GW’s policies with its values. Singleton helped restart a SA task force on the issue and called on University President Thomas LeBlanc, who serves as an ex-officio member of the new group, to form the University-wide task force last October.

“It’s really important to make sure that the current GW that we have – the administration, our values – match who we actually are and the values that the student body holds and the values that we want to attract to this institution,” she said.

Singleton said she hopes the task force will analyze GW’s entire history and take into account the perspectives of the student body and alumni through community feedback to create the “best framework” for the University moving forward.

She added that she hopes members of the GW community not serving on the task force will reach out to members to provide their input because she wants all stakeholders to feel that GW represents their interests on the issue.

“I definitely think it’s a great group of people to be able to spearhead this, and even if there are certain voices that aren’t represented on the task force, there are definitely people on the task force that have connections to those communities and can make sure that we can pull their voices and their opinions,” Singleton said.

André Gonzales, the SA’s director of legacy review, said administrators approached him at the end of October after SA President SJ Matthews suggested to officials that he serve on the task force. Gonzales chairs a SA task force launched in September that researches monikers to replace the Colonials.

“Although this isn’t necessarily specifically about the Colonial, this is a larger conversation about, ‘How do we want to approach these items? How do we want to work together, and how are we going to do this in a systematic way?’” he said.

Student leaders have called for changes to other building names on campus like Lisner Auditorium – named after former trustee Abram Lisner who donated to and supported segregation at the theater – and the Cloyd Heck Marvin Center – named after the former University president who doubled enrollment and increased the endowment eightfold but openly supported the University’s segregation policies.

Gonzales said the task force comes at a “pivotal point” in the University’s history, as GW will celebrate its bicentennial in 2021.

“It’s really just making sure that we’re having that substantial dialogue right now in this present moment so that we know that once that bicentennial comes around, we did everything possible to make sure that we can be proud of this institution,” Gonzales said.

Camila Tapias, a graduate student and presidential student liaison, said the task force’s recommendations will set the “foundation” for future conversations about name changes by setting clear guidelines.

“It will be very complicated without having instructions and without having that criteria for how you decide when and under what circumstances we will change the name,” Tapias said. “So this will definitely help for the future for whatever it is that we are considering to make the job easier for a lot of people and to really understand how we’re going to do it.”

Lizzie Mintz contributed reporting.

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