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The GW Hatchet

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SA leaders revive charge to examine controversial building names

Shelby Singleton, the SA’s vice president for diversity and inclusion, submitted a proposal to University President Thomas LeBlanc earlier this month to create a committee comprised of faculty, students and officials who will research building names.

Student Association leaders are relaunching a task force to evaluate the controversial history behind campus building names after the group flatlined last year.

Shelby Singleton, the SA’s vice president for diversity and inclusion, submitted a proposal to University President Thomas LeBlanc earlier this month to create a committee comprised of faculty, students and officials who will research building names – like the Marvin Center and Lisner Auditorium – that were named after former University figures who students say were discriminatory toward students of color.

She said the group will first create a set of guidelines to evaluate the names and will eventually produce recommendations for building name changes, though no timeline has been established for the project.

Singleton said that as a student of color, partaking in programs like diversity training in buildings named after figures with racist pasts “does not live up to our current values” of promoting an inclusive student body.

“In a building that is our student center that houses our welcome center, food options, study centers, student org offices – it’s ridiculous that it’s in a center named after a man who did not respect a lot of student rights and identities on campus,” Singleton said.

SA leaders originally formed a task force of student leaders last academic year to research building names with potentially discriminatory namesakes, with a particular focus on Cloyd Heck Marvin, a former University president who was a proponent of segregation. But the task force dissolved by the end of the academic year after a drop in participation and stalled research.

Now, SA leaders are proposing a task force comprised of about 10 administrators, faculty and student leaders that will operate by the spring semester. LeBlanc has not yet responded to the SA’s proposal, but Singleton said he will reply in the next two weeks to decide whether he or SA leaders should spearhead the committee.

Singleton said that in addition to examining the Marvin Center, students will also look into changing building names like Lisner Auditorium, which was built in 1943 using a donation from former trustee Abram Lisner. The theater was previously segregated and denied entry to black attendees, including the dean of Howard University’s medical school three years after its debut – leading to a leaflet and boycotting campaign and canceled performances.

The task force will evaluate how the University has changed in recent years – like the increasing diversity of its student body and student sentiment about building names – and will develop guidelines by the end of the academic year that will help the group determine whether the task force should recommend changing a building name, Singleton said.

“It’s a really important part of our community to figure out what we stand for and what we expect out of each other,” Singleton said.

SA President Ashley Le said involving administrators will make the task force more effective than student-led committees because officials like LeBlanc have more influence over quick institutional change. She said that based on prior discussions over the past two months with LeBlanc and Nelson Carbonell, the chairman of the Board of Trustees, she believes officials and faculty have already indicated interest in evaluating building names.

She said that when SA leaders submitted the task force proposal to LeBlanc, they included information about successful task forces at other schools, like Yale and Georgetown universities, that eventually inspired building name changes.

“Looking at models from other universities, like Yale, the president created that committee and six months later, the college was changed,” Le said. “Because it was an approach that remains a priority from the president at the top of the university, it was very effective.”

Student leaders at institutions that created similar committees said including officials in name task forces is more effective than having student-led groups because administrators have stronger sway over institutional changes than students.

Georgetown University renamed two of its buildings in 2015 that were named after former presidents who sold slaves to pay off university debt. Several other institutions, like Princeton University and the University of Texas at Austin, have also followed suit with their own building name changes.

Yale University renamed one of its residential colleges in February 2017 because it was named for John C. Calhoun, an alumnus of the university and former U.S. vice president who said slavery was a “positive good” and promoted white supremacist policies.

Saloni Rao, the president of the Yale College Council, said the task force comprised of students and administrators – which has since dissolved after renaming Calhoun College – can reconvene at any point to research new building names that students and officials may deem necessary to change.

She said the task force developed guidelines, like what kinds of contributions a person made to Yale and what kind of legacy they left, that future officials and students can use as a basis for potential discussions about changing building names.

“It’s frustrating sometimes at Yale that change can happen so slowly, but I do think there’s something to be said conversely for taking the time to consider the implications and the logistics for making any sort of monumental changes,” Rao said.

Sonali Chadha, the former diversity and inclusion excellence chair in Tulane University’s undergraduate student government, said student leaders launched a diversity and inclusion committee to examine the history behind Hebert Hall, which was named for F. Edward Hebert, a former U.S. representative for Louisiana and a proponent of segregation.

Chadha said that even after Tulane’s student government passed two pieces of legislation last year advocating for a building name change, officials have not responded to the student advocacy. Student leaders need to have administrative buy-in to influence institutional change “no matter what it costs or what donors choose to leave” as a result of the adjustment, she said.

“It’s about the legacy that the university chooses and in our story, Tulane chose to fight on the side of the Hebert family,” Chadha said in an email. “They did not show the effort or desire that other institutions do to remove problematic namesakes on campus.”

Gabby Pino contributed reporting.

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