Update on Building Names

Removing Confederate Names to Be Recommended to Board of Visitors

JMU News

SUMMARY: JMU President Jonathan R. Alger will bring to the Board of Visitors a strong recommendation to remove the names of Confederate military leaders from three campus buildings.

The following communication was sent by JMU President Jonathan R. Alger to the university community on June 22.

JMU community:

Greetings from Harrisonburg!  These past few months have been incredibly difficult for our nation and our world, and I hope you are staying well.  We look forward to reopening the campus in the fall, and are continuing to work on the details of every aspect of that plan in accordance with guidance from the Governor and the Virginia Department of Health.  We will continue to share those details as soon as they are available, and appreciate your patience and support as we deal with this unprecedented challenge.

I’d like to speak with you now for a few moments about a topic that has been at the forefront of our national dialogue, and right here in our own community.  As our society grapples with critical issues of systemic racism and race relations, one aspect of our own institutional history that we have reexamined is the naming of three buildings on our campus that were themselves renamed over 100 years ago to honor individuals who fought for the Confederacy:  Jackson, Ashby, and Maury Halls.

Much has changed since those renamings occurred in the early 20th Century.  We evolved into a comprehensive and fully co-educational institution that welcomes students from all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds.  As an institution of higher education, our mission includes a responsibility to change and evolve in ways that reflect the needs and circumstances of our society and our people.  In other words, change is built into our DNA, just as it is built into the DNA of our nation.

Because we are an educational institution, how we change matters as well as what we change.  In dealing with significant issues, we have a responsibility to model a process in which we seek first to educate and to listen, and then to make decisions and act.  That process, while messy and painful at times, is at the heart of what it means to be a university.  It allows different perspectives to be heard and examined, but it also allows for action.  This is also the essence of what it means to be a democratic society.    

We have followed that process in this instance, building on work that we initiated some time ago through the leadership of the Task Force on Inclusion.  The History and Context working group of that task force shared important research on the names and context of our buildings on campus.  That information has in turn been shared with our entire University community, and we have provided an opportunity for every member of our community to learn, reflect, and be heard.

That process has served its intended purpose.  We have heard from thousands of people who have shared their thoughts and perspectives.  Indeed, many people have shared that they learned about the history and context of these buildings for the first time through this process, and noted that this learning has caused them to reflect and change their minds.  In other words, our university has modeled its very purpose and mission.

We’ve provided that opportunity for listening, but leadership also requires action.  And that time has come.  With the full support of the senior administrative team at JMU, today I want to share that I will bring to the Board of Visitors a strong recommendation to remove the names of Confederate military leaders from these three buildings, effective immediately.  

We are recommending a two-step process.  First, we would remove the building names immediately.  These buildings would then be given temporary, non-honorific designations in order for our community to follow an inclusive process over the coming academic year with regard to new names.

This recommendation is supported by the voices of our students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community members—who have overwhelmingly spoken out in favor of changing these building names.  As many have noted, these names reflected a cause that would have preserved the institution of slavery and dismantled the Union set up by the Constitution.

We know that these names are a painful reminder of a history of oppression, and that they send an unwelcoming message to Black students, faculty and staff in particular.  That is not who we are or who we want to be.  We embrace values of diversity, inclusion, and equity, and we know that we become a better and stronger educational institution as we strive to live out those values.

Based on thoughtful conversations with every board member, I am confident that the board will support this recommendation as well.  Accordingly, we are working with the board now to schedule a special session this summer to address this issue.    

In making this recommendation, I want to acknowledge that there are of course dissenting views, including some who argue that such a change will cause us to ignore or forget our own history.  Understanding and sharing our history is indeed also a part of our educational mission.  Accordingly, we will not forget or ignore that history—but we will put it into an educational context.  As we move forward, we will describe the history of these buildings and their names over the years through internal building signage, QR Codes, and our website.

Speaking of history, we have received a number of inquiries from alumni and friends of the university asking whether removing James Madison from the name of the institution is under active consideration.  It is not.  It is certainly true that James Madison himself owned slaves during his lifetime, and as an institution we have taken important steps to tell the full history of Madison and of his times.  We recognize his flaws as well as his virtues—a combination that describes all of us, and our times as well as his. 

But that is not the reason why his legacy is honored through the name of this university.  The university itself was renamed for James Madison because he is internationally recognized as the Father of the US Constitution and the primary author of the Bill of Rights, which have served as the very framework for democracy in our country and as a model for nations all around the world.  Indeed, without Madison’s life work, we might not be able to have this conversation today.  This legacy is also critical to our DNA as a nation, and to our DNA as an educational institution in which we value freedom of expression.

That legacy is not just about history.  Madison and his colleagues knew that their new nation was imperfect, and they developed a system built on the assumption that every ensuing generation would need to continue the hard work of building a more just society that reflects the ideal embodied in the preamble to the Constitution:  We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union.  That is the high calling that challenges and inspires us now. 

There is much hard work to be done, and it will take much more than changing the names of buildings.  As a university, that means that we must all continue to listen, learn, and act—and to treat one another with respect as we engage in this hard work together.  These are extremely stressful times for us all, but as we live out our motto of “Being the Change,” we also have an opportunity and a responsibility to call upon the better angels of our nature—as Abraham Lincoln implored the nation many years ago.  It matters both what we do, and how we do it.

As we move forward we might ask ourselves, how will history judge us?  How will people one hundred years from now look back on how we have treated one another, how we worked together, and what we accomplished?  I am confident that we are up to the task, and I ask all members of our community to join in this important work.  Thank you for your energy, your commitment, and your dedication.

Stay well.

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Published: Monday, June 22, 2020

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

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