Building name changes just the ‘tip of the iceberg,’ say some on JMU campus

In June, JMU students marched to urge the university to rename buildings on campus that honored Conferedate veterans. The university did so on July 7. File photo by Tristan Lorei.

By Bridget Manley, publisher

For many student activists at James Madison University, changing the names of three buildings once named for Confederate officers represented progress toward a more inclusive campus, after their hard work lobbying the administration for years finally paid off.

Many of them say, however, that renaming the buildings is only the tip of the iceberg of what they’d like to see happen.

Prior to the Board of Visitors’ decision to change the three building names, multiple student organizations on campus issued a list of demands of the university, asking for further steps towards a truly inclusive environment and vowing to hold the university accountable for implementing them.

And since the name change, a new petition has emerged, urging the university administration to “reaffirm this commitment to an inclusive process for the renaming of all three buildings, and to dedicate any and ALL funds raised for three buildings being renamed to scholarships, hires, or other items that directly benefit Black Indigenous Latino/a/x and other People of Color.”

Student activists say university leadership needs to live up to the standards that they have set for diversity and inclusion if they truly want to “be the change.”

The former Maury Hall has a new temporary name, which JMU plans to replace with a permanent one after a deliberative process. File photo by Bridget Manley.

Who’s in a name

Even before the three names were officially removed from the buildings, chatter began about the renaming process, what the new names might be, and who gets to decide.

JMU sophomore and Student Government Association Senator Ryan Ritter was one of many students petitioning the administration to change the names. While he was pleased that the university moved quickly to retire the old names, he hopes the school will include minority community stakeholders in the naming process.

“I would love maybe for JMU to get outside of their own bubble … and be able to talk and collaborate with the Harrisonburg community overall on which names they want to be put on the buildings,” Ritter said. “The center for multicultural student services, organizations on campus, student leaders, faculty, alumni, we would all really like for everybody to be able to have a say in what they want the names to be.”

The petition that began circulating last week has already garnered more than 150 signatures. It calls for inclusivity in renaming the three buildings, and using all funds raised in the process to fund scholarships for students of color.

JMU already has naming policies in place, including philanthropic investments, along with honoring extraordinary service to the university, commemorating people outside of the university, and function-based or institutionally relevant names.

Nick Langridge, vice president for university advancement, said the Campus History Committee will begin seeking input from on- and off campus about possible commemorative names, and will submit a list of possibilities later this year.

The committee is currently looking to expand its membership “to include more Black, Indigenous, and People of Color participation,” and plans to host public events, such as focus groups and dialogue sessions, to gather input from “targeted groups.”

“That committee wants to broaden itself,” Langridge said. “They are going to work together to produce a preliminary list of potential individuals.”

Langridge said that anyone can email the group with suggestions about candidates for inclusion on the Committee. The university is also accepting suggestions for new building names.

While JMU has committed to giving at least one building a commemorative name, Langridge said the committee is also taking suggestions honoring university service and leadership.

“We don’t want to commit yet to doing all three commemorative historic [names], because we might do an honorific service and leadership [name],” Langridge said. “The rumor that’s false – that’s out on social media right now – is misinformed, is because people heard that we were only guaranteeing that one of the buildings would be for a commemorative historical purpose. It doesn’t mean that we’re limiting it to only one. It could be that senior leadership in the board decides all three could be for commemorative historical [naming]. But it might be that we find that there’s someone who is a part of this community – university community – that is deserving of one.”

The university is also considering philanthropic investments in the naming of the buildings, and hopes to dedicate any gifts related to the re-naming process to need-based scholarships for incoming students. At the same time, Langridge noted, federal law prohibits colleges and universities from creating need-based scholarships based on race, and JMU could not specifically allocate those funds for scholarships only for incoming students of color.

“The idea of adding to the need-based scholarship ability that we have to create access for future generations of students is one that’s appealing,” Langridge said. “No one has mentioned two buildings going for a philanthropic purpose.”

Ethan Gardner, who just graduated from the university in May, was active in the Student Government Association and was a democracy fellow with the Center for Civic Engagement.

He believes the only way for the university to maintain trust is through transparency during the naming process, and inclusion of community groups, students, and faculty of color.

“I think part of the problem right now is that a lot of this is happening behind closed doors, and people don’t really know, and there’s not been a lot of public announcement of what this process will even look like,” Gardner said. “And I think that’s contributing to the situation. I think JMU needs to earn the trust of students and faculty, and to do that they need to be transparent. If donors are going to be involved, I think they need to detail exactly how they’re going to be involved, and I don’t think the donors should have the final decision on something like this. A decision like this, it should be truly inclusive as they promised in the universities announcement.”

Meanwhile, Ritter said that when the student government was garnering signatures for the bill of opinion, they asked for name suggestions, and three came up over and over again: Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., and local educator Lucy Simms.

Additionally he believes Wilson Hall should be next on the list of name changes. The building is named for President Woodrow Wilson, a Staunton native and the 28th President of the United States. Princeton was the latest university to remove Wilson’s name from a building on campus due to his segregationist policies.

“Ever since we’ve seen universities all across the United States recently removing any reference to Woodrow Wilson, I believe JMU should follow suit,” Ritter said.

At a June protest, a spirit rock was painted black to remember the victims of police brutality. File photo by Tristan Lorei

To be seen and to be safe

Kyel Towler, a senior at JMU who works with the JMU NAACP and the Black Student Alliance, has experienced both subtle discrimination and overt racism while attending the school.

“It feels like a rite of passage to a degree, unfortunately,” Towler said of “checking” white students who have used racial slurs around him. He says that many black students on campus have been in classrooms where their experiences and opinions have been diminished or gaslit, and their work has been discredited.

“It’s just unfortunate that there’s many stories beyond mine, probably decades worth of stories,” Towler said.

Julian Denizard, a senior who is finishing his summer classes before graduating, was involved with the Center for Multicultural Student Services, the Brothers of a New Direction, and the Black Student Alliance.

Denizard said that students of color have vastly different experiences both on and off campus during their time at the university. While the names changes are a great first step, he said more needs to be done for students of color to feel as though they can call Harrisonburg a welcoming place to be.

“What I’ve experienced is a lot of my peers feeling a sense of not being seen, not being acknowledged properly by the university,” Denizard said. “Not exactly feeling like JMU is their home in a way.”

Denizard said he’s felt a disconnect between the top administration and the student body, and as students pay thousands of dollars a year to attend, they should have a more direct pipeline between the administration and students for their voices to be heard.

One of the bigger demands was making the campus police and the Harrisonburg Police Department accountable for their actions, as well as no longer being “dismissive of asseverations.”

“Especially in the social climate that we’re facing, you have to realize that there’s not gonna be exactly like, a beautiful relationship between the police force and minority – specifically black students ­– at the university. There’s going to be that divide,” Denizard said. “Holding them accountable shifts the power dynamic in a way, because no student – no person in America to begin with – should be at the mercy of law enforcement or fear them. So, with students demanding accountability on their part and kind of forcing their hand to ensure that their jobs are done properly, it makes a better environment.”

Towler said any initiatives that the HPD and JMU police take need to be wholehearted and intentional in the changes they make regarding how students are treated on and off campus.

Immediately following the Board of Visitors’ decision to rename the former Jackson Hall, the sign outside the building (now under renovation) was removed. File photo by Bridget Manley.

Meaningful change, not “gradualism”

Towler said the time for task forces and town halls are long past, and believes the only way for students of color to feel safe on campus is by enacting sweeping changes now.

He said the university needs to steer clear of the usual gradualism that major institutions seem to favor over rapid change or revolution.

“[Town halls and task forces] are nice, but the time for gradual change, in my opinion, is over,” Towler said. “You can easily make a decision that changes so many things that betters so many people all at once. It is that easy.”

“I mean, we clearly did it for coronavirus, with the university coming back, why can’t we do that for systemic racism at the university?” Towler asked.

Gardner believes the school has a long way to go before they can claim true diversity on campus.

“When you look around campus, the university is about three-quarters white, and so every class I’ve been in, pretty much every organization I’ve been in, event, whatever it is, I’ve been part of the majority of students,” Gardner said. “I’ve never been in the minority. That’s just a fact at JMU.” 

While student groups should participate in discussions about improving inclusivity on campus, Towler said the administration needs to do the work of learning about systemic racism on campus rather than continually burden students of color with explaining why they should be treated equally.

“Students have had this fight for a very long time, and yes, it’s definitely great that we are in the room where they are crafting these decisions, but it takes more learning on the university’s part than teaching on the black students part,” Towler said.

Gardner says the university wouldn’t have changed the names without the persistent work of student activists and organizers, and the university should listen to students moving forward.

“We are going to continue that pressure, and I would hope that with that kind of activism, JMU will respond in kind to the interests of students, but especially and most importantly to the voices of students who are not white, who are not in the majority, and really include them in the decision making processes,” Gardner said. 

“I know every single one of us that have been pushing for equity truly want to see a university that we can be wholeheartedly proud of,” Towler said. “We just want more people to want that future with us.”

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