In November 2022, the Cleveland State University (CSU) Board of Trustees voted to remove the name “Cleveland-Marshall” from our law school. Our law school is now known as Cleveland State University College of Law. We are a historic law school founded over 125 years ago, and this was historic.
How and why did this happen?
In the summer of 2020, we received a petition signed by many students and alumni urging the university to remove any reference to Chief Justice John Marshall, the fourth chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, in our law school’s name because of Chief Justice Marshall’s lifelong association with slavery.
Chief Justice John Marshall bought and sold hundreds of slaves throughout his adult life, and, unlike many of his contemporaries like George Washington, did not free any of his slaves. He also made some troubling statements about slavery. However, few would dispute that John Marshall, from a constitutional law perspective, was a very important chief justice in our nation’s history.
When we received the petition, some on all sides of the issue demanded that we make a quick recommendation because, to them, the answer was clear and obvious. Some students demanded that we immediately ask the university to change our name, and some alumni demanded that we ignore the petition because it was an example of “cancel culture.”
Instead, I told both groups that we would undertake a careful process that modeled what we teach our law students — the need to listen to, respect and understand the viewpoints of all sides of an issue. We teach our law students that in order to be effective advocates and problem-solvers, they must be able to step outside the constraints of their own immediate, biased frames of reference and understand the viewpoints of not only their clients but also their adversaries.
We must recognize that few, if any, individuals can meet a standard of perfection. We are all flawed. Many of our historical figures led contradictory lives that serve as a constant reminder of our nation’s contradictions. Many of their stories hold multiple truths — that they did truly great things and they did reprehensible things that we should unequivocally condemn and never excuse.
That’s why I immediately formed a Law School Name Committee consisting of faculty, staff, students and alumni to seek wide input and to develop findings and options. We met over 18 months, seeking wide and deep input from all law school constituencies and from professional historians and constitutional law experts. Our process included gathering comprehensive resource materials on institutional name change issues, hosting six public forums that included nationally prominent speakers from universities that have dealt with similar naming issues, writing a 45-page framing document that presented different views on the name change issue and conducting an online survey sent to over 4,000 law school alumni, students, faculty and staff, as well as CSU and Cleveland legal community members. The CSU Board reached its decision following an extensive and comprehensive process that included a careful review of the law school report of findings that we submitted to the University.
I fully supported the CSU Board’s decision. Changing our law school’s name is NOT about erasing history. Chief Justice John Marshall’s contributions to American jurisprudence are significant and enduring, and his writings, decisions and judicial legacy will continue to be a very important part of our curriculum and the education of all our law students.
However, we need to recognize the distinction between preserving history and bestowing honor. Naming rights are a highly cherished honor that should be reserved for those whose actions are consistent with the shared present day values of the law school and University and those with the strongest ties to our law school — either through their service or their philanthropy. Chief Justice Marshall and his ancestors do not have any ties to Cleveland, CSU or our law school.
This was about understanding the inherent complexity of our history and reckoning with that history in the context of our present day values. We cannot ignore the reality that Chief Justice Marshall’s actions and views are contrary to the shared values of our law school and university — an unwavering commitment to justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.
I know that some disagree with the CSU Board’s decision and my views, but I hope that those on all sides of this issue will respect the careful process that both the law school and the University undertook. The vast majority of our alumni, students, staff and faculty with whom I have communicated have agreed with this inclusive and deliberative approach, regardless of their views on the issue.
Our careful, thoughtful, deliberate process modeled what we teach our law students: including the importance of due diligence, due process, inclusiveness, transparency and the need to listen to, respect and understand the viewpoints of others.
As CSU President Laura Bloomberg noted, we should move forward in agreement that the true value and strength of our iconic law school lies in the high quality of the education we offer and the talents and diversity of our students, faculty, staff and alumni. That will never change.