The George Washington University Board of Trustees has decided to discontinue the use of the nickname Colonials based on the recommendation of the Special Committee on the Nickname Colonials. Both the board and the special committee ultimately determined that given the division within the community over the nickname, it can no longer serve its purpose as a unifying name.
“The board recognizes the importance of changing the name of the university, and we made this decision only after a thoughtful and deliberate process that followed the name change framework and the recommendation of the special committee that considered the different perspectives of our students, faculty , staff, alumni, and athletic community. ” said board president Grace Speights, JD ’82. “A nickname should unify our community, bring people together and serve as a source of pride. We look forward to the next steps in an inclusive process to identify a nickname that meets this aspiration.”
President Mark S. Wrighton agreed, noting the “principled” approach the university took in reaching this decision.
“As we embark on our third century, we must continue to lead with our values, strengths and the diversity of the George Washington University community,” Wrighton said. “I was impressed with the task force’s principled and collaborative approach, and it was clear that this process was driven by research and strong community engagement. While some may disagree with the outcome, this process has determined that changing the nickname is the right decision for our university.”
Christopher Alan Bracey, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, also highlighted the importance of the university’s values and the changing demographics of its community in assessing whether the current moniker serves its purpose.
“We have evolved over our 200 years as an institution and a community,” Bracey said. “Today, the moniker no longer does the job a moniker should, namely, unify the campus behind our institutional academic and athletic aspirations.”
Colonials will continue to be used until a new nickname is introduced, which is expected in the 2023-24 academic year after an extensive process of participation from the university community.
Background of the special committee
This decision to discontinue the nickname was the culmination of a process that began in November 2019 with the board’s formation of a Names Working Group. At the time, the nickname had already been identified as a cause for concern given years of discussion among community members about how to change it.
After the Names Working Group developed a framework to address name change requests, in July 2020, President Emeritus Thomas LeBlanc convened a Special Committee on the Colonials Nickname to make a recommendation to the Board of Trustees to determine if Colonials should be changed. The special committee included representation from faculty, staff, students, alumni, athletics, and subject matter expert advisors familiar with the university’s history.
The committee understood the sensitivity and importance of its work and followed the process and considerations established by the board’s renaming framework. This process included extensive research, including reviewing hundreds of pages of historical materials, three virtual town hall events, and a university-wide survey conducted to understand community sentiment around the nickname. Additionally, community members had the opportunity to share their thoughts online through a special committee feedback form.
The special committee considered all views before making its recommendation in a report to the board.
“Our committee of students, alumni, faculty, staff and athletic representatives worked diligently to conduct a comprehensive review of the nickname,” said Mary Cheh, chair of the Special Committee on the Nickname of the Colonies and Elyce Zenoff Research Professor of Law. “The committee took its role seriously, reviewing the relevant historical research and soliciting extensive feedback in order to produce a report and recommendation based on fact and acknowledging the divide among the community regarding the nickname. Ultimately, we determined that a new nickname would help support unity in our community. I am grateful and proud of the committee’s hard work.”
The committee compiled a report outlining the key factors used to inform their recommendation. Selected findings include:
- The committee said changing names should be rare, but also acknowledged that the GW community was divided on whether to change the Colonials moniker. In this case, the special committee found that the Colonials moniker does not adequately align with GW’s values and can no longer serve its purpose as a name that unifies the community.
- The committee sought to understand the history of the term Colonial, how Colonials was initially selected for the moniker, the harm caused by the moniker, and the affinity and prominence of the moniker within the GW community.
- According to history experts, George Washington himself firmly rejected the term “colonial” in the few times he used it. The research also found that the term “colonial” was not used during the colonial era of 1607-1776, and did not become popular until the colonial revival period of the late 19th and 20th centuries.
- While Colonials became GW’s nickname in 1926, the special committee determined that the nickname came about casually and randomly, without thoughtful consideration throughout the university.
- The special committee identified a significant difference in the connotation of the term Colonial. For partisans, the term refers to those who lived in the American colonies, especially those who fought for independence and democracy. To opponents, Coloniales means colonizers who stole land and resources from indigenous groups, killed or exiled native peoples, and introduced slavery to the colonies. These are perspectives that cannot be easily harmonized, the committee concluded. The use and popularity of the nickname have also declined in recent years.
The special committee, board and other university leaders have noted that while some in the community may prefer the current nickname, there is now an opportunity to discuss a new nickname that brings the community together.
“As with any change, I understand this decision will have a mixed reception,” said Christine Brown-Quinn, president of the GW Alumni Association, MBA ’92. “In times like these, we must remember that it is our shared experiences as a GW community that bind us together. And as an alumni, your unique perspective and personal experience is what makes us stronger and deepens our human connection. In the spirit of respecting and embracing our diversity in the broadest sense of the word, I hope that the alumni will actively participate in the decision of the new nickname”.
The nickname has also long been a part of the athletic experience at GW, and the new nickname will unite the GW community in support of student-athletes.
“The nickname is a way for our student-athletes, athletic staff and fans to build community,” said Athletics Director Tanya Vogel. “I know some people will be disappointed today, but we see this as a great opportunity to come together, share our experiences, and consider what’s important to our GW community as we launch the new moniker development process.”
Find a new nickname
The university has already determined some of the next steps in choosing a new nickname, including:
- Selection of a firm that will partner with GW and its various stakeholders in the development of creative strategies, processes and recommendations.
- Establishment of a special advisory committee including GW leaders, alumni, faculty, and students to monitor the progress of the work and make recommendations.
- Commitment to a broad engagement effort for stakeholders throughout the GW community to participate in the creation, evaluation, and selection of the new moniker.
It is the hope of the board, special committee members, and university leaders that the GW community will actively participate in the process of choosing a new nickname.
“We have a great opportunity to conduct an inclusive process that will determine how we as a community want to come together around a unifying nickname and show ourselves as a distinguished and distinguishable university,” said Wrighton. “I am very excited about our next steps together.”
Additional information on the new moniker process will be released soon and shared with the GW community as it becomes available. If you would like to submit comments for consideration in this next phase of the process, please share them here.