The Cleveland State University board of trustees voted unanimously Thursday to change the longtime name of the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in light of heightened scrutiny from the college’s namesake, former Justice Chief Justice of the United States, John Marshall, who owned slaves.
The name change comes after a lengthy review process, first by a “naming committee” created within the law school itself, then by an ad hoc committee appointed by President Laura Bloomberg, then the college provost. This process took place after a petition in 2020 pressured Cleveland State and other schools across the country to drop the Marshall name.
The chair of the board’s Academic Affairs and Student Success Committee, Timothy Cosgrove, said the name change did not affect Marshall’s history as a jurist, which will always be taught.
“It was simply a question of, ‘Does the name Marshall belong to our law school, does it represent the values of our university and our law school? And that was the question,” he said.
The name of the college will now be Cleveland State University College of Law.
Emily Foresee, a law school student and member of Students Against Marshall, welcomed the university’s dropping of the Marshall name and said the name change was a long time coming. She said two cohorts of students have graduated since the conversation escalated around the removal of the name, and one slave owner’s name remained on their diplomas.
“It’s a conversation that we’re having nationally about whether or not we’re going to pursue this as a country and really advocate for letting black students, students with ancestral ties to slavery, get away with it. sit in buildings that are named after slave owners,” she said.
John Plecnik, director of the master’s program in legal studies at the College of Law, said there was no defense of the slave legacy of Marshall or other influential figures in US history, like George Washington.
But Marshall is a giant of legal history in this country, Plecnik said, and so his name should stay on the school. He noted that the United States Supreme Court’s decision in the landmark case Marbury v. Madison in 1803 – which Marshall played a key role in deciding as Chief Justice – established the concept of judicial review, meaning that the courts have the power to strike down unconstitutional laws.
“The concept of judicial review that Chief Justice John Marshall gave to the United States really created the foundation and the bulwark of the freedoms that we stand for today,” he said.
Without Marbury v Madison, “there would be no Brown v Board of Education,” said Plecnik (who has ruled racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional).
Some law school alumni and professors strongly opposed the name change for similar reasons. Others have complained at the school that this is just another example of a “cancel culture”, law school dean Lee Fisher previously said.
Foresee said people are “getting lost in the weeds” with these complaints.
“There’s a difference between honoring someone and studying them for their contribution,” she said.
The Cleveland City Council and various civil rights and activist organizations have petitioned the State of Cleveland to remove the Marshall name from the law school.
The Cleveland Metropolitan School District still has a high school, the John Marshall School of Engineering, named after Marshall.