Administrators to review name of Michigan State's James Madison College

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Administrators at Michigan State University's James Madison College say they plan to reconsider the college's name as they push to "combat racism and advance an anti-racist agenda."

The residential college at Michigan State, which is named for the fourth U.S. president, provides an education in public affairs for undergraduates,according to its website. Madison was one of the country's early political leaders and has been given the nickname "Father of the Constitution." But he was also a slave owner.

Three of the college's administrators wrote a letter Thursday entitled "Our Commitments and Actions," citing others' efforts "to hold James Madison College accountable for advancing racial equity in the college."

A sign is pictured outside Michigan State University's James Madison College on Monday, July 13, 2020.

"Finally, after the summer break, we plan to engage in reconsideration of the name of the college," the letter said. "The latter will need to incorporate the perspectives of students, staff, faculty and alumni. If these groups should support a name change, we would then proceed through the university governance process."

The letter, which detailed steps the college is taking to combat racism, drew immediate criticism from some, including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who retweeted a story from the national online publication Washington Free Beacon about the potential name change.

"James Madison was the Father of our Constitution," Cruz tweeted. "The Lunatic Left wants to expunge his memory."

The letter that mentioned the potential name change was signed by Interim Dean Linda Racioppi, Assistant Dean Jeff Judge and Amber Benton, director of diversity programming and student engagement, according to the copy posted online. The administrators wrote that they are "committed to creating a learning environment in which students can thrive as scholars and human beings."

"As such, the college is taking steps to combat systemic racism and the perpetuation of whiteness and to probe how it can best support Students of Color, especially Black students," the letter said. "This will be a continuous effort that will take time to make positive change."

The name of the college was among several items brought forward by alumni groups and part of larger discussions about racism and diversity concerns within the college unit, said Emily Guerrant, spokeswoman for Michigan State University. 

"I am aware of the interim dean of James Madison College planning for on-going dialogues regarding diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) concerns within her college, including the suitability of its name," added Samuel Stanley, the university's president. "While it is appropriate for the college to discuss diversity concerns in addition to DEI efforts happening around our full campus, there is an administrative process for any renaming efforts that goes beyond one college or unit."

No conclusive action has been taken on the topic of a name change, but the possibility remains under discussion, said Jack Kennedy, president of the James Madison College Student Senate.

"It remains clear this issue has become politicized by those not connected in any way to our institution," Kennedy added. "This matter should be thoughtfully discussed by JMC faculty, staff, current students and alumni. Furthermore, coverage designed to hyperbolize this dialogue is not conducive to such work.

"It has always been our ambition to continuously work towards an environment in which all students, faculty, and staff deem most inclusive and welcoming. Nonetheless, nothing will be decided until we return to campus this fall."

The James Madison College review comes amid a national debate about statues and names honoring individuals with problematic histories. The debate has played out in the wake of George Floyd's death in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25.

On June 30, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer renamed a state-owned building in downtown Lansing that had carried the name of Lewis Cass, the second governor of the Michigan territory. Cass owned at least one slave and implemented the Indian Removal Act as secretary of war under President Andrew Jackson.

Princeton University decided to remove the name of former President Woodrow Wilson from its public policy school because of his segregationist views, the Associated Press reported in June.

Madison was a Princeton alumnus. According to the university's Princeton & Slavery Project, which seeks to investigate the university’s involvement with the institution of slavery, Madison held "contradictory views on slavery." He argued "that slavery was incompatible with Revolutionary principles" while he owned more than "one hundred slaves on his Virginia plantation."

Because of James Madison College's public policy focus and proximity to Lansing, many of its alumni have gone on to work in state politics, including a handful who serve in the Michigan Legislature.

Noah Sadlier of Ann Arbor, a Republican political operative and James Madison College alumnus, tweeted Monday that he agreed with Cruz on the subject of the potential name change.

"I’m a proud James Madison College grad — the name of the school carries weight in DC that benefits its students professionally," Sadlier added. "It gets the students a foot in the door. It’s a name brand at this point."

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.