Names aren’t set in stone anymore.
Decrying segregation and racism, students on college campuses have protested the namesake of Woodrow Wilson School of Policy at Princeton University; family crests with echoes of slavery at Harvard Law School; commemorating racist founder John Evans at Northwestern University. Activism at Loomis Chaffee is no different. The past does not remain buried.
Last year, the Student Council officially endorsed a proposal to remove the name of Major John Mason from the century-old residential hall. After reviewing a report written by the Mason Committee and holding discussions from May to October, the Board of Trustees have finally decided to rename Mason Hall.
“By changing the name of Mason Hall, we as a school have not changed history; we’ve made history,” stated Taseen Anwar ’17, president of the Student Council and a member of the Mason Committee. “I’m proud of our school for making this tough decision…By changing the name of Mason Hall, I believe we have finally washed away the blood of the Pequot War from the name of our school.”
Upon the announcement of the Trustee’s decision on November 3, students showed mixed reactions. The main criticism was that they, the student body, had felt largely left out of the discussion. While we commend the decision to rename Mason Hall, it is important to reflect on the procedure the proposal went through: whether students were fully informed of what they were signing (not just the actual name change, but the implications of it) and whether the proposal was debated sufficiently (if at all) within the student body. In the future, the petition process should be more rigorously examined to engage the wider student body, and petition procedures in the student council should be more clearly defined and transparent.
Juxtaposing a visit to Mason’s monument in Windsor with a stop by the dorm’s plaque has been long engrained in the World History curriculum. The field trip sparked the interest of Taseen Anwar ’17, who revived the question of why the dorm was named after a figure who massacred 500 Pequots and enslaved the remaining 180 during the early colonial era.
The reason for the dorm’s name remains a mystery. The 1916 Student Handbook briefly mentions the West Dormitory will be named Mason Hall, after the historic figure of Windsor with no justification. The plaque currently outside the residential hall was placed in the 1980s, with added detail. From works from the early republic, Major John Mason was remembered as the pride of Windsor, the one who secured the land for the English settlers in the decisive and destructive Pequot War.
Though no genealogical records show that Major John Mason was related to the Founders of the Loomis Institute, he was indeed the namesake of Colonel John Mason Loomis, the youngest of the five Loomis siblings who founded the school. The first trustees after the Founders passed away were charged with the task of naming the first two dorms on the campus.
The Problematic Petition Process
Though the petition process raised awareness once more, it lacked thoroughness and requires re-evaluation.
Firstly, only one individual delivered the speech in favor of the name change in the fall of 2015 in class meetings across all four grades. Immediately after the delivery, the petition notebook was given to the audience. Half stirred by the speech and half conscious of others’ signing to petition the name change, most students automatically signed their names without consciously being aware of the implications their signatures had.
Secondly, the major disconnection between this strong representative voice and individual student stances was disconcerting. Upon discussing the Mason proposal, the administration based their final decision on the entire student body’s opposition to the naming of Mason Hall, as it highlights in its statement, “Today, many members of the Loomis community find the Mason name out of keeping with our values as a school and, in particular, with our desire to be a welcoming community for all students from all backgrounds. It was this discomfort that weighed most heavily on the Trustees.” However, if the opinion represented in the petition does not actually represent the voice of the entire student body, the final decision could be very problematic. In fact, the lack of sufficient debate and discussion about this proposal within the student body led us to question whether this proposal represents the opinion of the majority of the student. For instance, despite the open dialogue hosted by the Norton Center of Common Good in January, 2016, only sixteen students and five faculty members attended. The strikingly low attendance and publicity of dialogue, and the fact that this event was the only formal student discussion about the Mason Hall proposal all indicates the insufficiency of debate.
Thirdly, the Student Council and Administration did little to supplement the student body’s knowledge of the issue. Once the petition garnered around 300 signatures from the 675 students on campus, the decision to change the name was quickly passed through the Student Council and passed to the trustees. With the exception of that one dialogue held on a Wednesday evening, neither the Student Council nor the Administration provided sufficient opportunities for discussion amongst the students. StuCo did not sponsor any debate, nor did they hold town hall assemblies as they had with the Junior Internet proposal or the Veracross proposal in 2014-2015.
However, the lack of research was compensated for by the Mason Committee, a body comprised of 12 Loomis Chaffee community members, six students and six faculty members (Editor’s Note: Gloria Yi, one of the authors of this editorial, was a member of the Mason Committee). The committee convened last spring to capture the “historical, historiographical, and organizational nuances of this story” and to be a resource to the Board of Trustees. Their mission was purely informational; there was no endorsement for future actions. The committee presented their final report to the Board of Trustees on May 12, 2016. However, the transparency of the committee comes into question. Despite meaningful discussions within the committee, the Mason Committee did not reach out to the community, save for one report written to the Board of Trustees.
Considering that the student body did not have the benefit of reading the report before signing the petition, it is safe to say a majority of the petitioners were not well-informed.
In retrospect, despite the goodwill behind Mason proposal, the process that propelled the petition forward failed to fully engage the student body and facilitate sufficient debate. The name change is set now; however, it is crucial that future student initiatives of this much importance be formally presented to the entire student body and closely examined through debate and dialogues. Student Council should host a town assembly for the entire school after presenting a well-researched proposal. Student speeches could be made in favor of or in opposition to possible names and a democratic vote could be taken through the portal to avoid on-the-spot pressure. It is the responsibility of StuCo representatives to involve their constituents actively in these discussions to ensure they are able to take a stance after learning about both sides of the argument. Only then can a petition be put in place.
We hope that the process of replacing the dorm name will be more transparent to the student body and will include more student contributions, not just from a few individuals but from a group of students who carry the well-informed thoughts of the entire student body with their vote. After all, Loomis Chaffee is a school that strives for the common good; future deliberations on the renaming of Mason Hall should reflect a common decision.