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Students favor scrapping ‘Columbus Day’

Thursday, April 2, 2009

More than two-thirds of Brown students approve of changing the name but keeping the date of Columbus Day, according to a Herald poll conducted last month. A group of students began advocating last fall that the University stop observing Columbus Day to protest historical inaccuracies they believe the holiday celebrates.

The poll found that 67.2 percent of students support changing the name of the holiday, and 45.6 percent of undergraduates said they specifically favor changing the name to “Fall Weekend.” About 27 percent of students favored keeping the name and date of the holiday the way it is, though a larger percentage of male students supported maintaining the current label.

The gender divide was statistically significant – slightly more than two-thirds of men favored changing the name or did not indicate a preference, as opposed to a greater percentage of women, 78.2 percent, who said they did not want to keep the current classification.

“I think maybe women can tend to be more sympathetic and in tune with the weight of language,” said Reiko Koyama ’11, who spearheaded the movement cosponsored by Native Americans at Brown to change the name of the holiday.

“We as females realize the power of words.”

Only 5.3 percent of undergraduates said they favored changing the name to “Tomato Day,” while 1.8 percent said they wanted to remove the name and not have a day off at all.

Koyama said she was glad that a majority of students said they supported changing the current name.

“It really is symbolically denouncing the name in the way that I hoped it would,” she said about the preference for a neutral name such as “Fall Weekend.”

But she said she was surprised that some still said they wanted to keep the name and date.

“I didn’t really see what the reasoning could be for keeping the name,” she said. “It definitely exposes the need for increased awareness.”

The initial movement included a provision to end observance of the holiday at Brown, establish an indigenous week in October and increase educational awareness surrounding the historical context of the holiday. But it now includes only a name-change after months of dialogue with the administration and faculty.

But even with the revisions, approval for the motion has taken longer than anticipated, Koyama said.

“I really didn’t expect the regional backlash and the dissent,” Koyama said. But she acknowledged that “any meaningful social change will cause divisiveness, or it would have already happened.”

Though the Faculty Executive Committee said it favored changing the name of the holiday to one honoring Native American heritage instead of a neutral name, faculty members at a faculty meeting early last month ultimately approved changing the name to “Fall Weekend.”

But the vote did not officially pass because the meeting lacked a quorum. One hundred members must be present for a motion to pass, but only 43 faculty attended the March meeting. The vote is set to come up again next Tuesday, said FEC Chair Jamie Dreier, a professor of philosophy.

Drier said the favorable student response would probably not affect the faculty vote next week. He thinks many faculty members are in favor of the proposal, he said, and the motion’s passage will depend on whether a quorum is established.

“I think some people are worried about the public relations angle, and they’re worried that some groups might be upset,” Dreier said, adding that he said he thought many faculty members “kind of wish it didn’t come up at all” because of the controversial nature of the proposal.

“It’s a symbolic issue and for some reason, issues that are completely symbolic tend to bring out strong feelings,” he said.

Many students said they supported the name change even if they did not necessarily think changing the date of the holiday was as important.

“I think that we should actually have a day off,” said Brielle Friedman ’12. “But I also don’t think it should be called ‘Columbus Day’ or ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Day.'”

“From an administrative perspective, I understand why they want to keep the date,” said Osman Ghani ’11. “But I also think there needs to be a recognition of the atrocities that were committed.”

The poll, conducted from March 16 through 18, has a 3.6 percent margin of error with 95 percent confidence. The information specifically about male respondents has a 5.1 percent margin of error and the information about female respondents has a 5.0 margin of error, both with 95 percent confidence. A total of 676 Brown undergraduates completed the poll, which The Herald administered as a written questionnaire to students in the University Mail Room at J. Walter Wilson, outside the Blue Room in Faunce House and in the Sciences Library.

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