The term “Colonial” used to grace (or disgrace, depending on where you fall) mugs, expensive T-shirts and community spaces across George Washington University’s downtown D.C. campus.
However, that tradition seems to be changing.
Student groups have been advocating for the transition for some time now. On one side of the argument, GWU fans and alumni say that the term is traditional and respectful of the university’s origins. (GWU was founded through congressional charter, and the term “Colonial” was used as homage to American colonists.)
Those that want to leave the outdated term behind say that it is representative of ethnic violence, genocide and racism.
This past April, students passed a referendum requesting the university to change the widely used nickname. The initiative was approved by 54 percent of student voters, or 2,700 participants, while 2,100 students voted against the change, bringing the total number of participants to less than half the student body.
The referendum followed a student petition that had gathered over 500 signatures.
Proposed alternatives include the “Revolutionaries,” “Hippos” and the “Riverhorses,” the latter two after a famous statue of a hippopotamus on campus often cited as an unofficial mascot.
André Gonzales, student association senate pro tempore and co-chair of the Anything but Colonial Coalition, summarized how last spring the GWU Student Association called for the university to form a task force of campus stakeholders to discuss changing the moniker. The task force has yet to be formed, but Gonzales and other senators have been meeting with members of the administration to move things forward.
Following the nickname-change vote, GWU declined to take a firm stance on the matter but reiterated its mission to continue to listen to students, faculty and staff.
“Generally there is a lot of student frustration over administration not responding to what students are saying and requesting,” Gonzales said.
Crystal Nosal, a spokesperson for the university, gave the following statement: "The university leadership has been engaged in the conversation about the university's nickname. Members of the community have expressed a range of opinions. The administration will continue to listen to our students, faculty, staff and alumni as we think about various naming issues. Decisions about use of the Colonials nickname continue to be made on a case-by-case basis. The change from Colonial Central to Student Services Hub follows a major redesign of the space and better identifies the purpose of the center for our students and their family members."
In early February, the student association organized a panel on the history of colonialism and whether or not the nickname was appropriate, especially in an international context.
The interpretation by international students, especially from countries that had been formerly colonized, appeared to be a high priority during the discussions around the change.
“GW has been more and more of a hub for international students,” Gonzales said, explaining why he believed the university needed to be more inclusive in their branding.
“As we explain what the moniker is and what it means, we are seeing students express support [for the change],” Gonzales said, citing alumni hesitations as being some of the strongest opposition.
Prior to the April vote, Young America’s Foundation and GW College Republicans posted to their respective Facebook pages urging students to vote no, citing the unity and history behind the Colonial nickname.
In response to questions, the director of public relations for GWU’s College Republicans said that the group stands by its Facebook post, which read, “The Colonial mascot embodies the spirit of freedom and ingenuity that marked the founding of the United States of America.” It continued, “Changing the mascot allows historical revisionism to undermine the values on which our university was founded and disparages the legacy of our founding fathers. Rebranding our university mascot does nothing to fix injustices of the past.”
The university does seem to be distancing itself from the controversial term. The official student fan section has changed its name from the Colonial Army to George’s Army, however, they said that this was not related to student pressures and instead was part of an overall rebranding effort.
“At the end of the day for us as an organization, it wasn’t about the referendum or the politics around ‘colonial,’” said George Glass, the club president.
Glass said that this was part of a larger rebranding effort to get students more interested in the club, following fading attendance over the past few years. Glass said that the decision to change the name was made in January, some months before the vote even happened.
According to Glass, the fan section has been around for 20 years and has changed its name many times, so the move is “in line” with the history of the club.
GWU changed the name of its student services center from the Colonial Central to the Student Services Hub. The Student Financial and Registration Services was previously known as Colonial Student Services.
The music department has said that it will stop using “Colonial” in ensemble names. Additionally, the annual pep rally has dropped the name “Colonial Invasion” over the past year, and the new basketball court does not boast the Colonial nickname. GWU athletic teams still use the moniker.
The Colonial Health Center and Colonial Crossroads (a student support center that includes study abroad and career services) still carry the moniker. The official mascot is still the Colonial.
Student groups who were opposed to the nickname change, such as the College Republicans and the Young America’s Foundation, also cited how expensive rebranding and re-signing can be.
“The thing is the university regularly goes through rebranding,” Gonzales said in response to this. “One of the biggest misconceptions is that it’ll be a blanket change overnight.”
The Colonial debate on the GWU campus reflects a broader discussion on political correctness and mascots (see professional sports teams the Cleveland Indians, Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Redskins).
These discussions raise some questions: If the teams weren’t named with the intent to offend, is the outrage necessary? Who determines what terms mean what, and what terms offend?
Other universities across the country have had similar conversations about campus mascots.
In 2016 Whitman College in Washington State changed its mascot from the Missionaries to the Blues, in reference to a nearby mountain range. Similarly to the discourse happening at GWU, Whitman students viewed the Missionaries mascot as representative of oppression and violence.
The Missionaries were named for settlers who came to the area to convert Walla Walla’s Cayuse Indians to Christianity and were later killed following disputes related to the practice.
The University of North Dakota changed their moniker, the Fighting Sioux, in 2012, and Arkansas State University switched from the Indians in 2008. In 1997 Miami University in Ohio changed their mascot from the Redskins to the RedHawks, following a request from the Miami Native American tribe of Oklahoma, which is originally from the land the university occupies.
Faculty and students at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts pushed for the term “Crusaders” to be dropped, citing its racist and supremacist background. In March of 2018 Holy Cross president Reverend Philip Boroughs said that the college would drop the knight imagery used as a mascot, but keep the nickname the Crusaders.