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Brown University Should Consider Name Change Due to Slave Ties, Critics Say

What's in a name? A lot more than history, apparently.

Faculty at Brown University — the seventh-oldest and arguably the most progressive of America's higher learning institutions — caved into pressure by students and teachers trying to right the perceived wrongs of history by voting earlier this month to rename the Columbus Day holiday as "Fall Weekend."

Proponents cited Christopher Columbus' enslavement and violent treatment of Native Americans, and argued the name of the Italian explorer should be expunged from the day of celebration.

While 67 percent of Brown students reportedly approved of the decision, some off-campus took "particular offense" to the renaming, including David Cicilline — a Brown alumnus and mayor of Providence, the town where the university is located.

In March, a commission — established by Brown, the city of Providence and the state of Rhode Island — tried to right another perceived historical wrong when it released a report that made six recommendations to acknowledge the university's ties to the slave trade.

Among other things, it recommended building a public memorial that recognizes links between slavery and the university's early benefactors.

Brown’s founder, the Rev. James Manning, was a slave owner who accepted donations from many slave owners and traders, including the Brown family. The four Brown brothers, a wealthy family from Providence, made their fortune in part by trading slaves.

John — the second born — was the college's treasurer and used slave laborers to construct campus buildings, including University Hall. Eldest brother Moses — supported by family money — freed his slaves and became an abolitionist, as did his nephew, Nicholas Jr., who became the university's namesake.

The commission also called on the university last month to re-examine how to teach this history at the 8,000-student institution. But those recommendations did not include the possibility of renaming Brown University, something critics blast as hypocritical.

"If you're going to get rid of the day honoring Columbus because he was involved in slavery, I don't see how you can bypass the Brown problem," said John Leo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. "They have to be consistent with their message on slavery. And if they’re not willing to do that, then there's no reason to take them seriously."

Cicilline, who graduated from Brown in 1983, said the decision to drop Columbus Day doesn't mesh with the university's express commitment to expose the evils of slavery, even if it extends beyond its own historical past.

"Brown University made itself an example to the nation by carefully exploring its ties to the slave trade and using that process to promote greater understanding," Cicilline said in a statement released after the decision on Columbus Day. "The decision to simply erase the celebration of an incredibly significant moment in world history and Italian-American culture for sake of political correctness does just the opposite."

Raymond Dettore Jr., national historian for the Sons of Italy, said Brown's decision to drop Columbus is "laughable" and has damaged the university's reputation among Italian-Americans. Brown's "intellectual escapades" should not stop until the school's name is changed as well, he said.

"If they want to be consistent, that's exactly what they should do," Dettore said. "If Columbus Day was offensive to Native Americans, is a slave trader offensive to African-Americans?"

Mark Nickel, director of communications at Brown, told FOXNews.com that the university's name has not been an issue since 1804, when the College of Rhode Island became Brown University.

"The colonial-era Brown family was a complicated and contradictory circle of people," Nickel wrote in an e-mail. "They ranged from the unrepentant slave trader John Brown to some of the most ardent abolitionists like Moses Brown. Although John Brown and other prominent Rhode Islanders were among the University's founders and early benefactors, the University's actual namesake is Nicholas Brown Jr., an abolitionist."

Nickel said a $5,000 gift from Nicholas Brown Jr. in 1804 ultimately led to the original renaming.

Still, others close to the debate say Brown's decision to distance itself from Columbus was a "positive message" to students and the university community as a whole.

"It shows leadership in an issue that's been swept under the rug by most of the education institutions in the country," said Patrick Crowley, editor of Rhode Island's Future, a politics and culture blog. "It's an important step."

Changing Brown's name would accomplish little, Crowley said, and present many other possibilities to consider.

"If we started changing the names of every institution connected to the slave trade, we'd have to change the name of the White House," Crowley said. "Acknowledging the role that the university's founder played in the slave trade does more to address the problem than simply a name change."

If Brown does eventually consider changing its name, one critic suggested a title with a familiar ring — "Columbus University."