Denver Brunsman is an associate professor and the associate chair of the history department.
For the past several years, GW’s faculty have rarely applauded the University’s administration for its handling of pandemic-related layoffs, questionable hiring decisions and plans to cut undergraduate enrollment. But in their handling of the push to change the Colonials moniker, the presidential administrations of Thomas LeBlanc and Mark Wrighton and the Board of Trustees all deserve praise. In June, the Board reached a thoughtful decision to end the use of Colonials after the current academic year, but even more importantly, it did so with a process that is beyond reproach.
The past three years of deliberation over the moniker have raised the ceiling of shared governance – another common lament of faculty – bringing together students, faculty, staff, alumni, athletics and the rest of the administration in a common pursuit of determining whether the Colonials name best reflects the values of the University.
I was an early critic of the administration’s initial response to the moniker issue and felt it moved too slowly in responding to concerns about the offensiveness of Colonials, particularly to Indigenous and international students. Yet, in hindsight, the administration wisely established a two-step process, creating the Naming Task Force to determine the overall process and criteria for evaluating a campus name change and establishing a Special Committee on the Colonials Moniker to decide whether to recommend renaming.
I had the privilege of serving as a member of the Naming Task Force and as an adviser for the Special Committee on the Colonials Moniker. Never in my 19 years as a professor have I been involved in campus efforts with such broad representation. The task force and committee together included 35 alumni, faculty, trustees, administrators, athletic representatives and students, including undergraduates, graduate students and student-athletes.
The special committee met weekly during the 2020-21 academic year and consulted with additional stakeholders, including leaders and representatives of the athletic department, study abroad, international programs, admissions, student affairs and financial planning and operations. The committee held three town halls, open to students, alumni, faculty and staff, and conducted a monthslong survey about those same groups’ feelings toward the moniker.
As with the best research inquiries, the moniker committee did not take a position until gathering all the evidence. After the committee delivered its final report to then-University President LeBlanc in March 2021 recommending that the University change its moniker, the Board took more than another year before accepting the recommendation.
The task force and committee both worked with a spirit of inquiry worthy of a top research university. The final product of the Naming Task Force, a framework for considering the renaming of campus buildings and other names, stands among the most careful and fair processes of its kind at any American college or university. The task force and another special committee have already effected the renaming of the Cloyd Heck Marvin Center to the University Student Center in light of the racist and antisemitic policies that tarnished the namesake’s administration as University president.
Understandably, not everyone is happy with the University’s decision to drop Colonials, but I would hope that even the strongest opponents would recognize the thoroughness and transparency of the process. This exhaustive deliberation stood in marked contrast to the original, arbitrary manner in which a single faculty member and administrator, Elmer Louis Kayser, came up with the Colonials moniker in 1926.
The special committee acknowledged in its final report that it had uncovered a divisive issue. In 2019, the student body voted to drop Colonials by a narrow majority of 54 percent. Similarly, the committee’s survey in 2020 of more than 7,300 alumni, students, faculty and staff determined that 44 percent favored removing the Colonials moniker, 43 percent favored keeping it and 13 percent expressed no preference.
One could logically ask whether it is worth dropping the moniker without overwhelming support for a change. In response, I would ask what percentage of students need to feel uncomfortable or offended by a name before it is changed. 10 percent? 20 percent? More? These students could not take pride in a symbol of conquest and oppression. As the committee determined, the Colonials moniker has worn out its original purpose of unifying and rallying the University community.
Critics of the decision have also resorted to a red herring. Watch out, they warn, the name of The George Washington University is next. I have tried my best to combat this falsehood in conservative media outlets by emphasizing that, as one of its first decisions, the task force determined that the University’s name was off limits.
Another misinformed charge suggests that dropping Colonials is a slight against George Washington. First, Washington and other early Americans almost never used “colonial” as a noun (it was an invention of the Colonial Revival, a historical preservation movement of the early 20th century), but when he did use the word, it was nearly always in a disparaging way. For Washington, who was committed to the American Union, “colonial” was synonymous with provincialism and small-mindedness, not the marks of either a great nation or a leading research university in the 21st century.
As a University community, we now have the chance to replace Colonials with a name that reflects George Washington and GW’s diverse stakeholders. In making this decision, I encourage the administration and Board of Trustees to follow the same inclusive, deliberative and stakeholder process that it used for the Naming Task Force and Colonials Moniker and Marvin Center special committees. I urge all students, alumni, faculty and staff – especially critics of the decision to drop Colonials – to become involved in this new naming process. My vote is for Buff & Blue. How about you?