After releasing a survey to gain perspective on changing the names of three campus buildings with Confederate names, JMU received responses from students, faculty and alumni. As a result of backlash, the survey has since been taken down.
Now, after a unanimous vote from the Board of Visitors to replace the names, the administration is working on the continued movement to create a positive change that encourages diversity and inclusiveness in the future of JMU.
Caitlyn Read, university spokesperson and director of communications, said that the survey, embedded in a recent email from President Alger, was a university sponsored initiative created by JMU’s senior leadership. It included descriptions of Stonewall Jackson, Matthew Maury and Turner Ashby, the three Confederate leaders the buildings on the Quad were named after. Read said that the information in the survey was collected from research done by the Task Force on Inclusion, which was a designated university group that examined university history and led a charge on inclusivity for about two years. Scholarly research was done by a group of historians at the university before the Task Force was dissolved.
Margaret Mulrooney, associate vice provost for university programs and history professor, explained the research behind the survey.
“Parts of the document came from students’ exhibits on the History and Context website, parts from reports related to the committee’s work,” Mulrooney said. “Multiple people contributed to the document and its format, then additional people reviewed and approved it before final release.”
JMU quickly received feedback from multiple students, alumni and faculty, and the survey also sparked conversation on Twitter through the hashtag #ChangeTheNamesJMU.
JMU alumnus Ethan Gardner (‘20) and junior spanish and psychology major Giavanni Parker both voiced their opinions on Twitter this week.
Gardner said he thought the wording of the survey created a biased view of the Confederates the buildings were named after.
“If you were a student coming in without any knowledge, you would kind of read that and not get the full picture of what the Confederacy was and what it fought for,” Gardner said. “In my opinion, these were some really horrific people that were fighting for the preservation of slavery and I don’t think we should sugarcoat who they were.”
Gardner said that it would’ve been beneficial if the survey had been shorter and provided links to further academic readings so students could do more research.
Parker said she thought the survey took a biased view and found it disappointing, especially since many students, including herself, had voiced their concerns.
“For a university that prides themselves over how much diversity and inclusion it has, it felt like they weren't listening to our voices at all,” Parker said. “Black students specifically, we only make up four or five percent of the school, so you'd think it'd be easy for them to listen to us and support us, but it feels like we don't have that support.”
Parker said that the best thing JMU can do during this time is listen to their students and organizations like the Center for Multicultural Services. She also said it would be beneficial to have buildings renamed after historical African American leaders and Black uplifting figures.
Read said the survey was built with a two-fold purpose: to give people more information on the Confederate leaders and to encourage reflection and feedback from students, faculty and alumni.
“We are approaching the naming in a very process-driven way and a very important component of that process is gathering input from the community,” Read said. “We wanted to create a place online where all people could feel comfortable with all different views sharing with us. We very much achieved that and had hundreds of responses within a week.”
Read said that it’s important to remember that the buildings were named in 1917 and 1918, and the research added in the survey was in the context of those times. The Lost Cause ideology was also born during the same time period, in which Confederate soldiers and leaders were painted as heroic figures with a just cause for fighting in the war.
Throughout the United States, colleges and universities are working to dismantle institutionalized racism on their campuses. Institutionalized racism can be described as the systematic distribution of resources, power, and opportunity to benefit white people and exclude minorities and people of color. This has a deep history in America in particular and many are beginning to recognize its harmful impacts.
JMU is in the process of reviewing the feedback to renaming the building names, but Read said the majority had an appreciative tone in their responses about having a place where their voices could be heard anonymously.
The Board of Visitors, appointed by Gov. Northam (D), has the ultimate authority in renaming the buildings, and they voted unanimously on July 7 in an emergency summer meeting to rename the three buildings.
President Alger said he’s confident the board will be in full support of the change and is working with members to hold a special session this summer to address this issue.
“It is a challenging and important issue, and [JMU] wants [the students] to have all the information possible,” Read said.
Julian Denizard, a senior international affairs major, also said the language used in the survey was “misleading.” He said that using certain language such as “brilliant strategist” to describe these Confederate leaders seemed irrelevant.
“Language like that brings in the whole subjective versus objective style, and I would have rather read a more objective survey,” said Denizard. “The language they used felt like they were detracting from the main point.”
Denizard said he wants to see new building names that pertain more to JMU specifically.
“Instead of historical figures from over a hundred years ago, why not make them more modern figures, like honorable professors or alumni who have made a great difference at JMU,” Denizard said. “Make it more catered to the future of JMU rather than the past.”
Denizard said he also hopes that JMU adopts a more direct way of communication between the administration and people inciting change on campus. He encourages JMU to “listen today, and act tomorrow” when dealing with these topics moving forward.
Mulrooney also said that there’s a new committee, “The Campus History Committee,” in charge of making recommendations for appropriate building names and more members will be added soon.
“The group is compiling information on the many Black people who contributed to the growth and development of this institution, including not only students and faculty, but staff [as well],” Mulrooney said. “I think the whole episode highlights what we all know — the need for more diverse voices at the university.”
President Alger posted a video statement on social media June 29 and said JMU has a mission to change and evolve to fit the current needs and circumstances of the university. He said that he’ll bring a strong recommendation to the Board of Visitors to remove the names of Confederate leaders from campus.
“Leadership also requires action, and that time has come,” Alger said.
Alger said the administration plans to first educate itself, listen and then make decisions that are best for the university and community. The administration is planning on a two-step process in which it temporarily replaces the buildings’ names and then allows the community to decide on new names this year.
“We know that these names are a painful reminder of a history of oppression and they send an unwelcoming message to Black students, faculty and staff in particular,” Alger said. “That is not who we are or who we want to be.”
Some alumni are concerned that removing the names will be a sign of ignoring history. Alger said this action won’t ignore or forget history but will rather allow the history to be put in an educational context. The university will continue to tell the entire history through internal building signage, QR codes and the university website in appropriate context, Alger said.
Alger also said that removing the name of James Madison from the institution isn’t under consideration. He said that the university was named after Madison because he helped create the framework of democracy in the U.S., and his legacy is critical to an educational institution.
“We recognize his flaws as well as his virtues, a combination that describes all of us,” Alger said in the video, “There is much hard work to be done and it will take more than changing the names of buildings,” Alger said. “We must all continue to listen, learn, and act, and treat one another with respect.”
Alger said that Madison created a system in which each generation will have to work to create a more just system for their time. Alger reminded students, alumni and staff that the JMU motto is “Be The Change” and encouraged them to embrace that moving forward.
On July 7, JMU senior leadership and the Board of Visitors held an emergency meeting through Webex to address changing building names on campus. The meeting was live streamed and was open to the public.
After making an appeal to the board last week, President Alger put together the emergency meeting. He said that the majority of responses the university received supported the removal of the confederate names. Alger told the board now is the time to act and asked them to support the community considering new names.
“How we make changes matters as well as what we change,” Alger said, “This work is a marathon, not a sprint.”
Norman Jones III, junior public policy and administration major, reminded the board of Amani Kildea’s recent death, a young man set to attend JMU in the fall.
“That could have been me,” Jones said, “I feel a duty now to speak for his life as well. I want [the university and the board] to remember that we still have work to do. It is going to be hard work, but if you show up, you have 20,000 students that are prepared to make this happen.”
Jones appealed to the board to change the names immediately as an important first step in the future of JMU inclusivity and diversity.
The board voted unanimously to immediately remove the names of Confederate leaders from the buildings and provide temporary names in order for JMU to follow an inclusive process. The university will work with the community to replace the names in the coming year.
“I’d like to express gratitude to so many students, faculty and alumni who worked so hard over these past few years,” Lara Major, a member of the Employee Advisory Committee, said, “I know we all will continue to work hard to bring more inclusion and diversity to JMU.”
Alger said the administration and university will continue to work for more diversity and inclusion in the JMU community.
“We’re currently reckoning with institutionalized racism in a way I’ve never seen before and I think that needs to happen at JMU,” Gardner said. “When we name a building after someone, on campus, it’s an expression of what JMU’s values are and I think they should be named after people who [the students] are proud of.”
Contact Eleanor Weber at email@example.com. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.