George Washington University Narrows List to Replace Its Colonials Name

From a Washington Post story by Nick Anderson headlined “George Washington University narrows list to replace Colonials moniker”:

George Washington University, for the first time in nearly a century, is hunting for a new nickname. Its governing board concluded last year that GWU’s longtime moniker, Colonials, is too divisive, evoking for many a history of imperialist oppression and probably straying from what the namesake Founding Father would have wanted after the army he led defeated the British in the quest for independence.

The decision at the private university in the nation’s capital echoed a pattern of racial and social reckoning on many college campuses in recent years — and among sports teams including the National Football League franchise in Washington [once known as the Redskins]. But another question instantly arose: Now what?

In January, the university ruled out the Hippos. In March, it eliminated six semifinalists. The GWU sports teams won’t be known as the Catalysts, Fireworks, Independents or Monumentals. Nor will there be any hoodies or coffee mugs or water bottles or parental-pride souvenirs in the campus bookstore to promote the GWU Squad or Truth.

That leaves four finalists: Ambassadors, Blue Fog, Revolutionaries and Sentinels. Two are at least somewhat warlike, one diplomatic, one unabashedly whimsical. To gin up interest in the choice and get feedback, GWU plans to circulate short marketing videos with the four options to students, faculty, staff and alumni. A final decision is expected within the next couple of months.

Nicknames, of course, are about more than merchandise and sports. They often convey a shorthand image of an institution to potential students in a national or global market. They are also a rallying point for alumni and broader communities who track the fortunes of a school.

Olivia Curran and Kate Carpenter, roommates and graduating seniors, are pumped about Blue Fog.

Curran, 22, from Johns Creek, Ga., said the nickname “Fog,” harking to the university’s base in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood near the White House, occurred to her in a brainstorm one evening last fall at a bar in Adams Morgan. “It met with some laughs at first,” she said. But she called it “an idea that’s unifying.”

Carpenter, also 22, from Stillwater, Okla., has played multiple athletic spirit roles on campus. Sometimes she has been the “George 1” mascot at gymnastic meets or basketball games. She pushed the Fog idea on social media and among friends. Separately, university officials decided to test it out, with the addition of one of the school colors (which are buff and blue, like certain Continental Army uniforms).

“Blue Fog is completely different and out there,” Carpenter said. “I do think that’s why a lot of students like it.”

One of the university’s test-marketing videos suggests, too, that Fog could be read as an acronym for “Friends of George.”

Ezra Meyer, chairman of the campus College Republicans, had opposed dropping the Colonials. Among the finalists, he prefers Revolutionaries. “It’s important they replace it with a moniker that still honors our history, honors George Washington and honors the founding of our country,” Meyer said.

The 22-year-old senior from Chevy Chase, Md., said he would be okay with Sentinels and is lukewarm on Ambassadors. But he dismisses Blue Fog. “That’s ridiculous,” Meyer said. “It’s in there to please people who want to completely disassociate us from the founding of our country.”

Colleges sometimes wrestle with challenges posed by mascots and monikers with problematic historical connotations. Amherst College in 2016 renounced any usage of the unofficial mascot “Lord Jeff” amid scrutiny of an 18th-century British lord, Jeffery Amherst, who had suggested using the smallpox virus to attack Native Americans. A year later, the college, founded in 1821 and named for the town of Amherst, Mass., adopted the mascot the Mammoths.

For GWU, a university with about 26,000 students, it has been a multiyear journey to this choice. The university, also founded in 1821, adopted Colonials as its nickname in 1926 for sports teams and other purposes. An editorial that year in the Hatchet student newspaper embraced the name “in just regard for our precious heritage.”

Debate over the moniker flared in recent years as many students pointed out that the term “colonial,” with a connotation of European imperialism, is often seen as offensive to Indigenous peoples in the United States and elsewhere. In 2019, GWU students approved a referendum urging the university to replace the moniker. In 2020, racial justice demonstrations arose nationwide after the murder of George Floyd.

GWU, like many colleges and universities in that moment of self-scrutiny, deliberated what to do. Last June, the board of trustees announced the moniker would be replaced by the 2023-24 school year.

André Gonzales, who graduated from GWU in 2020, said he cried when he heard the news. Now 25, Gonzales is from Las Cruces, N.M., and is Native American, with roots in the Comanche tribe and the formerly enslaved people known by the Spanish term “genizaro.” Gonzales recalled feeling alienated by such campus events as a pep rally dubbed the “Colonial Invasion.” He had pushed for a moniker change during his student years but wondered whether it would ever happen. Then it did.

“It felt like so much weight had been lifted, after so many years of student advocacy,” Gonzales said. “It was a really, really emotional experience.” He said he hasn’t been tracking the replacement options. “Anything but Colonials,” he said.

The moniker is harder to find these days on campus. A few fleece blankets with a “Colonials” logo were selling for $36 apiece this week in the bookstore. Signs point to a Colonial Health Center for students. The GWU sports website still displays the word because athletic teams for now are still known as Colonials.

Denver Brunsman, an associate professor of history at GWU, who teaches a course on “George Washington and his World,” said the first president likely would have recoiled at the moniker. “He thought of colonial as being somewhat small-minded, provincial,” Brunsman said. “In forging the new country, he wanted to think in national terms.”

Nationals would have been appealing to Washington, Brunsman said, although the name is taken by the local Major League Baseball team. Washington also favored the words “Americans” and “citizens,” Brunsman said. But he acknowledged there’s not a lot of zip to those nicknames.

Personally, Brunsman said, he is a fan of Revolutionaries. “We always remember the stately George Washington,” Brunsman said. “But he was young once, too, and a revolutionary. In some sense he was the foremost revolutionary.”

What about the Hippos? In 1996, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, then president of the university, bought a bronze rendition of a hippopotamus at an antique store and gave it to the class of 2000. The statue at 21st and H streets is said to bestow good luck on students who rub its nose.

Reached by telephone on Wednesday, Trachtenberg was quick to declare his nickname preference. “It ought to be the Hippos,” he said.

In January, GWU nipped that notion in the bud. Hippos, or variations on the word, “received negative feedback during engagement events from various members of the community, including student-athletes who are closely identified with the moniker in competition,” the university said in a statement.

Ellen Moran, GWU’s vice president for communications and marketing, said the university had received more than 500 moniker suggestions from roughly 3,000 people who weighed in. Now the university is gathering more feedback. Moran declined to discuss in detail how the final choice will be made, but she acknowledged the matter will come to the trustees.

Asked about a reporter’s hunch that a certain finalist might have the inside track, Moran said: “You have a 25 percent chance of being absolutely right.”

Nick Anderson covers higher education and other education topics for The Washington Post. He has been a writer and editor at The Post since 2005.

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