In 2017, the College of New Jersey reckoned with its past.
History students at the school discovered Paul Loser (pronounced LO-sure), the legacy behind “Loser Hall,” advocated for school segregation in Trenton long after it was outlawed. In response, students called for a building name change.
What followed was unusual. There were not campuswide protests or demands for firings. Yes, the cancel culture was alive and well at schools across the country — this issue aligned with the protests that marked life at the University of Missouri.
At TCNJ, they tried something different. They tried talking. They confronted the issue with thoughtful discussion, with all sides at the table.
Then-President Barbara Gitenstein explained why at the time.
“You need to be close to the ground, and, when you hear something growing, you need to run to the problem, not run away from it,” she said.
The Advisory Commission on Social Justice: Race and Educational Attainment was born. Soon after, Gitenstein recommended, along with the commission, to rename the building to Trenton Hall.
What has happened since?
ROI-NJ checked in with the co-chairs of the Advisory Commission, John Donohue, TCNJ’s vice president for college advancement, and Chris Fisher, an associate professor of history, to learn more about TCNJ’s current stance on racial justice on campus, and actions taken since the Loser Hall renaming.
The Q&A has been condensed for clarity.
ROI-NJ: Back in 2017, what was your initial strategy for handling the discoveries about Paul Loser and students’ calls for action?
Chris Fisher: This is the argument the students made: Loser was principally responsible for maintaining a system of segregation in Trenton when it was illegal to do so. It was a big deal to them. So, of course, it raised all these questions about social inequity and legacies and how TCNJ is connected with it. That’s where it dropped into our lap. When John and I sat down, we thought, ‘OK, what can we do with this?’
A couple of things came to mind. One is that we didn’t want to erase the history. There’s a kind of violence that comes with stamping out history and denying it, so we wanted to be forthright about the history. We also wanted to make sure that, whatever we did, we did it within the context of the resources that were available at TCNJ and that was consistent with our values. One of the things that I found really fruitful about going through this project is that it allowed us to affirm who we are as an institution.
ROI: Describe the process — and how you ensured it was inclusive?
CF: We had to make sure that we reached out to and included as many of the constituents who are integral to TCNJ. So, people on campus, whether they’re students, whether they’re staff, faculty, police, administrators, but also people in the surrounding community, so Ewing, Trenton, as well as our alumni base, so anyone who had a vested interest in TCNJ, we needed to include them in the conversation.
We began asking questions about what we knew about our history as an institution, whether that was being conveyed to the different generations of students who were coming in, whether there were connections between the alumni and the community and the present students. What I found inspiring was the fact that the students really picked it up. They had a hunger to know more about the institution. And to make a bold statement, not a radical statement, a bold statement on who we are as an institution.
ROI: How did the advisory group work together on these issues?
John Donohue: We went out and did 30 or more town halls with as many as 150 people. We went into Trenton and held them, and we talked to anybody we could. As the project developed, its boundaries got a little bit bigger. We were originally thinking about Loser, and then we found out that was just part of the story, but there was more to it. As we got the students together, we uncovered other concerns.
Folks in Trenton felt we had abandoned the city of Trenton. First, it was moving out to Ewing, then it was name changes (from Trenton State College to the College of New Jersey). It was like we didn’t want to be associated anymore. So, we actually reached the decision to pull the name down and create Trenton Hall in advance of the timeline we were given. Because we felt that there were other, maybe even more important, topics for us to look into before the semester was over.
ROI: How do you think the work you began in 2017 relates to work many universities, including yours, are doing in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and current calls for racial justice?
JD: It really was a matter of listening to people, hearing their stories and realizing that the history that I knew or was told was different than the history that somebody else was aware of. And it really was important for everybody to share their stories and their experiences and their recollections, so that we could really understand the nuance of how TCNJ got from where it was to where it is currently. But, then, more importantly, what is it we need to start doing differently? And I think that’s what the recommendations were: How can we be a better institution?
CF: We listened to our community. It was a community decision. That’s one of the silver linings in all this. The lesson I learned from our community is that talking to each other really works, and listening to each other really, really works. You don’t have to have all the answers. You just have to make sure that people feel heard and validated. And that they’re included.
ROI: How has current President Kate Foster continued the work you began in 2017?
CF: If you look at the report — and this is one of the things that I want to stress — we saw this as an ongoing conversation and project. So, I was not surprised that, once President Foster came to campus, and she was confronted with crises of inclusion and racial inequity, that she found a community of people who were willing to have the conversation and were already prepared for the kind of solutions that we’re seeing right now. That speaks to the kind of work that we did back in 2017.
ROI: How has TCNJ continued this work beyond the name change, especially in regard to your relationship with the city of Trenton?
JD: One of the things we found in the process was that they thought we had abandoned them. We kind of thought the same thing, too. We actually did a study and we found out there was some 170 different projects going on between TCNJ students, faculty and others with the cities of Trenton and Ewing, and nobody knew about them. There were these wonderful untold stories.
The first thing we’re able to do was say, ‘OK, it’s not terrible.’ We’re doing things. Once we brought it to other people’s attention, we realized we needed to bring it together a little bit better. We’ve attempted to do that. We work with the mayor of Trenton, Reed Gusciora, who is an adjunct professor periodically at TCNJ. We would like very much to have a greater presence in Trenton. We’ve taken a look at that. We plan to do some other programming things down there. At one point, we thought perhaps having space down there. That was one of our goals. Unfortunately, right now, the way that the pandemic has impacted the college and its finances, that’s not in the cards for this year.
ROI: How else has COVID-19 affected TCNJ’s plans for a more just campus?
CF: Everything is just so unpredictable. I remember going into the fall semester and hearing a lot of just really good, positive energy around the number of students who are coming from other underserved communities. There’s a lot of efforts to make sure they were welcomed and prepared. I was like, ‘Wow, this was great.’ And then COVID happened. And now everything’s up in the air, because you have to have access to those students, to those schools. And, let’s face it, no one has access because everything is shut down. And those students have to have the resources to get to campus.
We can do our best. We rely a lot on state and federal funding in order to make it possible for us to be those agents of change in the lives of those students. But those resources right now are either nonexistent or they’re in suspension.
ROI: In the summer of 2020, there have been a lot of Instagram account creations on behalf of college students called ‘Black at ____,’ where Black students and all students of color have talked about their campus experiences. How has TCNJ mitigated the challenges that come with public stories like this?
JD: Right. If you take a look at any school, it now has ‘Black at TCNJ,’ ‘Black at Stockton,’ ‘Black at Rowan.’ There are all sorts of Instagram accounts that have popped up, and we pay attention to those. And some of the stories are absolutely heartbreaking. You realize what some kids have experienced; some of it really terrible, some of it just little nuance things that really have upset them and troubled them and made them feel unaccepted. It’s here, it’s everywhere, unfortunately. We’re listening.
One of the things that we’re trying to stress with our students is, it’s fine to go out and tell these stories on Instagram accounts and do so anonymously. The problem is, we can’t act on anonymous allegations through Instagram. There is a formal process where they can be provided lots of anonymity through that. But, unless it comes through those, it becomes difficult for us to take action on these things. So, part of what we’re trying to do is, understand here, encourage students to come forward and tell their story, but also to take advantage of the more formal tracks that will enable us to make change.