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At UR, strife persists between trustees, faculty and students over building names

At UR, strife persists between trustees, faculty and students over building names

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RTD A1 Minute Dec 2, 2021

It’s been nine months since University of Richmond students and faculty first protested the names of two buildings on campus, but friction remains between the school community and its board of trustees.

On Monday, a UR professor called for a trustee to resign from his position as co-chair of a committee tasked with addressing how the university names its buildings. Two facilities on campus bear the names of men who supported slavery or segregation.

Julietta Singh, an English professor, asked trustee John Roush to resign from the commission after a meeting with students devolved into an argument, leading to an apology from the commission.

Singh will continue working to “enable all members of our community — especially those most affected by the enduring force of the university’s history — to feel heard and honored as they live, work and study at UR,” she said in an email to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Roush declined to comment through a university spokesperson.

The debate over building titles accelerated in February when UR announced it would leave the names of Robert Ryland and Douglas Freeman on university facilities. Ryland, the university’s first president, was a slave owner. Freeman, a university trustee and rector from 1925 to 1950, used his platform as editor of the Richmond News Leader to advocate for segregation, the disenfranchisement of Black people, eugenics and the prohibition of interracial marriage. The name Freeman Hall was changed to Mitchell-Freeman in February to recognize John Mitchell Jr., a man born enslaved who became editor of the African American newspaper Richmond Planet.

Colleges throughout Virginia have removed building names, department names, busts and plaques associated with racism. Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia State, William & Mary and James Madison have all changed titles whose eponyms supported slavery, the Confederacy or segregation.

At UR, change has come slower, and debate has persisted. In the spring, students and faculty protested the lack of change. The faculty cast a no-confidence vote in Paul Queally, the head of the board of trustees, known as the rector.

The board relented in April, promising a “fresh start” and forming a commission to establish what kind of principles the university should use when naming its buildings. The commission won’t give an opinion on the two buildings, but it will propose a set of principles that the board of trustees can use moving forward.

A final recommendation is due in the spring.

The nine-person commission comprises four trustees, one representative of the faculty, student body, staff and alumni and the executive director of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, Christy Coleman. Coleman and Roush are the group’s co-chairs, and other advisors are available to provide input.

Coleman declined to comment Thursday through a spokesperson.

On Nov. 18, members of the commission met virtually with 21 students, the university’s student newspaper, The Collegian, reported. Students and trustees argued over past statements made by Queally, students complained that their voices weren’t heard, and trustees urged the students to consider the broader university community beyond the student body.

“A college or university is not just about the students,” Roush said, according to The Collegian.

A day later, the commission apologized to students.

“During yesterday’s meeting with students in particular, we failed you,” the members wrote. “Some of the things that were said caused harm. That was never our intent, and for that we are very sorry.”

The faculty senate, a group of 17 faculty members who represent the more than 400 professors on campus, are concerned about what took place during the listening session, said Mary Kelly Tate, a professor of law and president of the faculty senate.

A UR student left the meeting “with a sense of marginalization and having been dismissed,” Tate said in an interview.

The senate hasn’t taken a position on the commission and its functionality, but it supports Singh, the faculty representative who called on Roush to resign.

“The senate fully supports Dr. Singh and her role and deployment of her skills and ability,” Tate said. “She’s been a fantastic representative for us on the renaming commission.”

Tate added that she hopes relations between the board of trustees and the university community improve.

On Monday, university president Kevin Hallock, who joined UR in the summer, asked the community for patience as the commission continues its work. The commission conducted a survey of more than 7,000 people and listening sessions for more than 300.

“The commission will now delve deeply and thoughtfully into this input in order to begin to formulate recommendations on naming principles, proceeding as expeditiously as possible,” Hallock wrote on the university’s website.

He urged participants to listen to each other, especially if they disagree.

“I believe that engaging with different points of view can help one grow and build understanding, sometimes in small steps, sometimes in greater leaps,” Hallock said. “We can disagree, but I think we should strive to do so compassionately.”

(804) 649-6109

Twitter: @EricKolenich



Eric Kolenich writes about higher education, health systems and more for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He joined the newspaper in 2009 and spent 11 years in the Sports section. (804) 649-6109

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