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Cleveland State University to drop 'Marshall' from law school's name

A man walks by the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in Downtown Cleveland.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
A few dozen people gathered for a rally outside of Cleveland State's law school earlier this year to advocate for the school to drop the name of former Supreme Court Justice John Marshall, who owned slaves.

Cleveland State University’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously Thursday to change the longtime name of the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in light of increased scrutiny of the college’s namesake, former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice 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's provost. That process occurred after a petition in 2020 pressured Cleveland State and other schools across the country to drop Marshall’s name.

The board's Academic Affairs and Student Success Committee Chair Timothy Cosgrove said the name change is not about Marshall's history as a jurist, which will still be taught.

"It was simply a question of, 'Does the Marshall name belong on our law school, does it represent the values of our university, and our College of Law?' And that was the question," he said.

The name for the law school will now be the Cleveland State University College of Law.

Emily Foresee, a law student at the law school and member of the group Students Against Marshall welcomed the university dropping Marshall’s name, and said the name change is a long time in coming. She said two cohorts of students have graduated since the conversation ramped up around removing the name, and the name of a slave owner remained on their diplomas.

“This is a conversation we’re having nationally about whether or not we are going to take this issue further as a country and really stand for letting Black students, students with ancestral ties to slavery, sit in buildings that are named after slave owners,” she said.

John Plecnik, director of the master of legal studies program at the law school, said there’s no defending the slave-owning legacy of Marshall, or other critically influential figures in U.S. history, like George Washington.

But Marshall is a giant in the history of law in this country, Plecnik said, and so his name should remain on the school. He noted the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the landmark Marbury vs. Madison case in 1803 — which Marshall was key in deciding as chief justice — established the concept of judicial review, meaning 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 for the freedoms that we're defending today,” he said.

Without Marbury vs. Madison, “there would be no Brown v. the Board of Education,” Plecnik said (which ruled racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional).

Some alumni and some faculty in the law school have staunchly opposed the name change for similar reasons. Others have complained to the school that this is just another example of “cancel culture,” Law School Dean Lee Fisher has said previously.

Foresee said people are getting “lost in the weeds” with those complaints.

“There’s a difference between honoring somebody and studying them for their contribution,” she said.

Plecnik said that, regardless of the name change, he hopes alumni still support the college of law, which he said has a "proud legacy," including being the first law school in Ohio to accept women as students.

Cleveland City Council and a variety of civil-rights and activist organizations asked Cleveland State to drop the Marshall name from the law school.

David Kielmeyer, a Cleveland state spokesperson, said the university has no "immediate" plans to give the law school its own unique name, meaning students will likely graduate this year with the "Cleveland State University School of Law" on their diplomas.

In a news release, the university noted the ad hoc committee had found that "honorary names are usually reserved for those with strong ties to a university" or its community.

"Neither Chief Justice John Marshall nor his ancestors have any ties to Cleveland or CSU," the release added.

The Students Against Marshall group said in a news release that the university must repair ties damaged with students.

"We are grateful for this progress but are realistic about the amount of work Cleveland State University must do to repair its relationship with its students of color and their allies, and root out the many systemic prejudices that exist within this institution," the release reads.

The Cleveland Metropolitan School District still has a high school, the John Marshall School of Engineering, that bears Marshall's name.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.