Associate Vice President, Advancement Relations at George Mason University and a past president of the Association of Donor Relations Professionals.
During the last decade, a few high-profile donor stories throughout the country have heightened public awareness of university namings. In response, “reputational risk” or “morality” clauses started popping up more frequently in university gift agreements. These clauses generally stipulate that an institution can remove a naming should the institution’s association with the name prove problematic in the future. The hope was that these clauses would allow institutions to disassociate themselves with the names of those who might become mired in scandal or criminal activity at some point in the future. But times are changing, and our institutions have been forced to consider how those changes impact the expectations of our internal and external community.
Higher education institutions were forced to alter just about everything in response to the Covid pandemic. Seemingly overnight, classes moved to virtual formats, faculty and staff switched to remote work, buildings locked down, and in-person activities ceased. At the same time, our nation’s calls for justice and equality left many wondering if it was time for some of the names at our universities to go. Although our campuses sat empty, the names associated with our institutions became much more significant. The pandemic required swift work and necessitated immediate response. But our response to our country’s growing social justice movement necessitates a more deliberate approach.
I have spoken with both institutional and professional colleagues throughout the country in the last several months and one thing is clear, universities throughout the nation are trying to figure out how to proceed in addressing existing namings.
You might think that a university founded in 1972 wouldn’t have much to worry about in terms of historical namings, but in recent years my university has grappled with the history of its namesake. George Mason IV was a slaveholder. He also authored the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the precursor to the United States Bill of Rights. Think about that for a moment. How can one human being have done both? While there are those who would encourage that his name be removed from our university, there are others who would equally argue that it should stay. There is no easy answer, and certainly not all naming examples are quite so extreme.
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