Ryland, a 19th-century founding president of the school, simultaneously enslaved people of African descent and received payments for their labor. Freeman, a prominent Richmond trustee in the early 20th century, supported racial segregation and eugenics.
The board and the university’s president, Ronald A. Crutcher, had contended that keeping the names of Ryland on an academic hall and Freeman on a dormitory would be in keeping with the university’s educational mission. Crutcher, who is the first African American to hold the position, had said he wanted to ensure that the full, often painful story of the university’s history was conveyed to future generations of students. The university released research reports on Ryland and Freeman in February. The university also added a name to what is now Mitchell-Freeman Hall, to honor African American newspaper editor John Mitchell Jr., who had often challenged Freeman’s views.
But many students, faculty and staff members denounced the decision to keep the names of Ryland and Freeman. They said the names needlessly honored white supremacists and argued that the board did not take into account the views of the community, especially the perspective of students of color. Many other colleges and universities, in similar situations, have opted to rename buildings associated with problematic historical figures.
On Monday, the Richmond board conceded in a statement to the university’s faculty senate that it had misjudged the situation.
“We respect the deep convictions about these issues among faculty, staff, students, and alumni, and we accept that our process and the proposed decision have not achieved our objectives,” the board said.
“Accordingly, the board has decided to suspend the recent naming decision. The board is reviewing options for a broader, more inclusive process to determine how decisions are made about questions of renaming, and we expect to communicate our plans shortly.”
The naming issue had boiled over last month in meetings held on campus. On March 26, the leader of the board, Paul B. Queally, met with groups of students, faculty and staff.
Queally, who holds the title of university rector, reiterated in those meetings that he considered the issue settled. According to a statement afterward from seven faculty witnesses, Queally said he wanted “to help Black, Brown and ‘regular students.’ ” He also challenged a Black female staff member in an “adversarial” exchange, according to the statement.
Asked about the faculty account, Queally gave a statement to The Washington Post that did not dispute specific quotes attributed to him or express any regrets. Queally’s own surname is on three campus structures.
In addition, Black students who met with Queally said he spoke to them in a “dismissive” manner.
The faculty senate on Friday approved a motion to censure Queally for his stance on the naming issue and his conduct during the meetings.
In their statement to the faculty senate, trustees said: “As this was a unanimous board decision, your frustration rests with all of us, not just the Rector.”
Regarding Queally and the March 26 meetings, the trustee statement said: “The Trustees in attendance at those meetings strongly disagree with the characterization of Rector Paul Queally’s words, tone, and intent. The conversations were candid and passionate but in the spirit of mutual respect. We are saddened, but hear clearly, that some parties interpreted certain comments as disrespectful. As we work through these issues in the future, we are committed to a frank dialogue in a mutually respectful manner.”
Shira Greer, 20, a junior, who is a member of the Black Student Coalition at the university, said the trustee statement fell short. “It was very vague,” she said. “Doesn’t really tell us much. Doesn’t feel like we have any sort of commitment of good faith.” Regarding Queally, she said, the trustees did not take “any accountability” for what had happened.
Kathleen Skerrett, a professor at the school who is a former dean of arts and sciences, said it was a sign of “progress” that the naming decision was suspended. “Weeks ago, we asked them privately and very respectfully to do that,” Skerrett said. “But the faculty senate’s censure detailed specific conduct unworthy of a rector, including Mr. Queally’s reference to ‘Black, Brown, and “regular” students.’ I don’t know anyone who finds that acceptable.”