Dear President Jonathan Alger,
As I write to you today, I can barely express the disappointment I feel about your decision to rename the buildings on campus. I had to take a few days to calm down after reading your email regarding the change. Make no mistake, I’m no Confederate, flag-waving sympathizer. But I am a 1984 James Madison University graduate who studied history and political science under the renowned Henry Myers. I am completely disgusted today by your blatant maneuver toward revisionist history. History is something that we can only study, not change.
Those who study history know that the events of any given era of history can only be viewed through the prism of those who lived there at the time. It cannot be understood otherwise. You sir, of all people, should know this. The buildings on campus were named decades before you or I came to Harrisonburg and were named for a reason by those leaders in charge at the time. The fact of the matter is that people from the South can have nostalgic views about the Confederacy and not be racists who advocate for a return to slavery. Those things are not mutually exclusive! Furthermore, JMU, as an institution, belongs to the commonwealth of Virginia and its citizens. Not to you and your board personally. For you to advocate such a change without consulting those very citizens is a blatant overreach of authority, and a direct insult to the commonwealth whose students you claim to represent.
If this change had been done at a time that was independent of the current unrest in our country I would have had no problem with the effort. Had you set up a commission and involved all interested parties: students, alumni, faculty, and local citizens; that would have been different. But for you to cave to pressure from outside of the university, outside of Virginia and outside of the mainstream you are simply promoting the myth that this is a racist country and needs to be changed. Individual acts of racism do not constitute a racist country. Now, more than ever, we need to hold fast to those American ideals that were promulgated in the founding and that we are still trying to attain. Your attempts to change history do not help those who are struggling to flourish in our society. It muddies the waters by continuing to tell those people that hard work and education are not the way to succeed, but that they are failing because of some supposed white racist plot.
Please rethink your quest to purge JMU of all its history. Your email notwithstanding, I can envision a day when the writings of James Madison himself out of favor and you purge his name as well! Please teach your students about the names on campus, good and bad, don’t wash away the history of JMU in the name political expediency.
Stephen Jay Mervine, Class of 1984, lives in Bridgeville, Del.