• Selene Cerankosky

Robert Morris officials rename "Freedom Card" after students say the name evokes slavery

Updated: Jun 24, 2020

Students said their Freedom Cards "dehumanize" black students, petitioned school to change name

Robert Morris is the latest university where students are moving to alter names that are deemed racially insensitive.

RMU students successfully petitioned the school to rename their student ID, long called the "Freedom Card," arguing the name evokes slavery and "dehumanizes" black students. Dean of Students John Michelanko said in an email obtained by the Mythbuster that RMU has agreed to the petition's request.

"Gifting us with IDs that grant us our 'freedom' is of extremely poor taste," the petition said, "especially coming from a University that is named after a slave owner."

"Minority students should not have to be reminded of that," the petition says. More than 120 students signed. The school's sports fans are called Colonials, and most campus buildings are named after American Revolution-era figures and Founding Fathers, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Betsy Ross, and Alexander Hamilton.

"I am pleased to announce the Freedom Card is changing its name," administration officials said, according to an email sent on Tuesday to the petition's author. "The Robert Morris University ID is now the RMU ID Card."

The announcement came from the Business Affairs department and was relayed by Dean Michalenko.

The message came just three weeks after four Minneapolis police officers murdered George Floyd, which resulted in widespread public outrage, peaceful protests seeking to charge the offending officers, and violent riots and looting in several cities, including Pittsburgh.

Black squares "not enough"

Among those who say the ID's name "makes light" of slavery are Jay Olu-Wehuje and Melanie Hall. Ms. Hall created the petition.

"Everything that I do at RMU affects my race," Ms. Hall told The Moon Mythbuster. She remembers sharing grievances with her friends over the term "Freedom Cards" as early as her freshman year. But following George Floyd's killing — and among a chorus of calls for widespread change to address race issues — she determined that now was the prime time to start this petition.

Ms. Hall added that a "good start for RMU would be to simply acknowledge the racist history of Robert Morris. Whether that be a letter to all students or a statement on the website ... we’re at a point in time where it’s not enough to post a black square on Instagram."

Mr. Olu-Wehuje supports the petition and shared it on social media. He wants to bring awareness to the “Freedom Card” issue because, he says, RMU puts on a front of racial inclusivity, prioritizing fake harmony over genuine unity.

"It’s more of how can we make the students happy and not how can we bring the University together," Mr. Olu-Wehuje said. He cites, in his opinion, a mere three days throughout the school year that the University truly sees a familial dynamic: BobbyMania, Homecoming, and Super Saturday.

Ms. Hall lamented budget cuts that hit the Multicultural Student Services (MSS) last year, which she says eliminated multiple faculty of color from the RMU payroll.  She stated that “the lack of representation that Black students have across all departments is disheartening.” Many of the substantive programs MSS traditionally put on were not in the 2019-2020 budget either, Ms. Hall said.

"There are not many departments where I see an African American or Black individual, so we feel left out and not wanting to connect with other adults," Mr. Olu-Wehuje said. "Also having a building for students of color (would help) so we can have a safe space, and not a tiny room," he added, referencing the the MSS's campus location within the Center for Student Success.

Colonial branding "tone deaf"

One RMU student commented on the petition to say he supports the move, but the whole University needs to be rebranded.

"'Freedom Card' is bad for the reasons stated in the petition, and it mentions Robert Morris being a slave owner," Draven Marino wrote in a public comment. "But on top of that, we’re the Colonials, and the act of colonialism is to inhabit a nation with settlers and exploit its resources for personal gain."

"Pretty much everything about our school’s identity is a bit tone deaf ... Kind of upsetting," Mr. Marino added.

Ms. Hall acknowledged that if RMU renames Freedom Cards, the move might lead to more changes.

"I can only (imagine) how much money would have to go into renaming the buildings that are named after slave holders, but I do think that it should be done,” she said.

Less than two weeks after the petition's posting, RMU President Chris Howard released a statement announcing an "Anti-Racism Task Force." The president's statement agrees with the petitioners that the school isn't doing enough.

"Racism is a system of privilege, inequality, and oppression based on perceived categorical differences, value assigned to those differences, and a system of oppression that rewards and punishes people based on the assigned differences," President Howard said in the statement. He added that "racism has manifested ... in how universities and colleges traditionally carried out their objectives and engaged students and team members."

The statement also promises resources to combat racism, anti-racist events, and more diverse hiring practices.

At least eight RMU buildings' namesakes owned slaves at some point in their lives, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Patrick Henry, Benjamin Rush, Ben Franklin, and John Hancock. Salem Hall is named after Peter Salem, a freed slave who fought in the Continental Army, while others like Franklin and Jay later became abolitionists.

Business Affairs officials said Tuesday that the new RMU ID will also update technology.

"The new RMU ID Cards will also come equipped with RFID chips allowing for 'tap' use without the need to swipe wherever the new readers are installed on campus," the department's email said.

Robert Morris is now one of many schools where students are moving to rename buildings, tear down statues, or otherwise update language that is deemed out of date. Student-athletes at the University of Texas made headlines last week when they announced they won't recruit for the school unless administrators immediately agree to a myriad of requests, including getting rid of the school's long-used fight song, which is under fire over its source material and because its early-1900s performances were racially insensitive.

The RMU students' petition concludes by saying, "If Robert Morris University is the welcoming place that the other 76% of (White) students know and love; we ask that these changes be made so that minority students can also feel that same pride in being a Colonial."

Students like Ms. Hall are expressing that in a time like this, mere rhetoric and empty promises are moot points. Given the "heartbreaking" nature of George Floyd’s death, Melanie states, “People want and deserve action.”

Robert Morris shakes George Washington's hand in a Chicago statue.

Follow us on Twitter @MoonMythbuster.

*Note: This piece has been updated with a Dean of Students John Michalenko email obtained Tuesday announcing the Freedom Card name change, as well as references to RMU President Chris Howard's newly released statement on an Anti-Racism Task Force.

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