Around a thousand students graduated from Dabney S. Lancaster Community College just a few days ago. As many classes have done before them, they walked across the stage to shake hands with professors and receive their diplomas, yet this ceremony will not be the same next year. Different insignias and names will cover the banners, signs and pamphlets. There will even be different diplomas.
Next year all these materials will bear the name “Mountain Gateway Community College” instead, as the school will officially change its name beginning July 1.
This transition is in response to an order issued by the Virginia State Board of Community Colleges calling for all community colleges to review the appropriateness of institution, classroom and building names following the murder of George Floyd in July 2020. Since then, five community colleges across the state have chosen to distance themselves from their namesakes’ controversial pasts and select new names.
The last one to do so is Dabney S. Lancaster Community College, based in Clifton Forge.
“We are all about inclusion,” said John Rainone, president of the school. “We want to be a welcoming college and a welcoming community, so I feel like the name is moving us forward. The name will be about inclusion, a sense of pride, and obviously not derived from an individual’s name”
As the board stated in the initial directive, colleges’ names “should reflect the values of inclusive and accessible education articulated in the VCCS mission statement, with special emphasis on diversity, equity, and opportunity, and be relevant to the students it seeks to serve and to the geography of its service region.”
In October 2021, the local school board unanimously approved Mountain Gateway to replace Dabney S. Lancaster, a Virginia educator who served as the state superintendent of public instruction in the early 1940s. His close affiliation with a white supremacist organization, however, was less publicly known.
The new title reflects many prominent aspects of both the geographic location and population that the college serves.
“The committee’s recommendation was that the word ‘mountain’ symbolized the beauty of the region and a tribute that in any part of our service regions there are mountains,” Rainone said.
He also stated that it can be a metaphor of students overcoming challenges and other obstacles in order to gain more opportunities both academically and professionally.
“Gateway” is meant to signify students’ success in the future, opening doors to the middle class and the school’s 60-year history of contributing to a trained workforce.
Renaming a college is a much more complex and expensive process than simply deciding on a new name. The other Virginia schools that have already moved away from their original namesakes are Thomas Nelson Community College, which became Virginia Peninsula Community College; John Tyler Community College, which changed to Brightpoint Community College; and Lord Fairfax Community College, which is now Laurel Ridge Community College. Patrick Henry Community College had a seemingly less extensive transition by shifting to Patrick & Henry Community College in an effort to more clearly represent the two counties – Patrick County and Henry County – that it serves.
Regardless of the magnitude of the change, each of these five colleges has undergone a similar process. Once a new name has finally been selected and approved by the school and state boards, the first step is to begin altering the basic front-facing features such as logos, email addresses and social media accounts.
Next comes the “front-facing heavy lifting,” as Patrick & Henry Community College President Greg Hodges described it. This involves revising any highway signs, internal signage, business cards, letterhead, name badges, websites, and other iconography, which demands the most cost.
Patrick & Henry Community College, located in Martinsville, is currently in phase three of its renaming operation, which includes changing the name on federal legislation as well as local, state and national boards. Though it only had to add an ampersand to its name, so far it has cost the school $300,000. However, the Patrick & Henry Community College Foundation was able to provide all of the funding for the school’s renaming. Dabney S. Lancaster has not been as fortunate financially.
As it is the smallest institution changing names, its cost is less than what the other renamed colleges are paying, at around $250,000, but this figure is still putting a significant strain on its budget.
Though the state board has connected the community colleges with a consulting firm that has compiled a database of all the necessary changes they will need to make, the actual work falls on the individual schools. The educational foundation associated with the institution has been as generous as it can be with its donations, Rainone said, but the school has still had to rely on fundraising to meet all of the required costs.
“The process has been going fine, but the expense has certainly been something of concern,” Rainone said. “Some local people had wished there would be some funding available since this was not our decision. Certainly funding to the five institutions would help offset even a portion of the cost.”
Updated signage to go along highways and in different areas on campus cost the college roughly $115,000, and the new website as well as marketing fees were almost equal to that at $100,000. Legal fees totaled approximately $20,000, and rebranding banners, letterhead, business cards, athletic uniforms and other materials was about $25,000.
Initially, when the school’s local board was first presented with the idea, members voted 9-1 against the renaming at a meeting in December 2020, writing in a letter to the state board that they “recommend no changes to any of the college’s buildings as well as the college name.”
However, the state board’s response strongly urged them to reconsider, so the task force led by Rainone once again began to examine the life of Dabney S. Lancaster. It was this further investigation in June that uncovered several problematic details of his life, such as his membership and position as national treasurer for the Anglo-Saxon Club of America, which was considered “the elite KKK.”
Once presented with the discovery, the board unanimously agreed to change the name and created a task force of 25 individuals representing their campus and local community to collect public opinion and recommend a name. Four months and more than 400 survey responses later, the committee settled on Mountain Gateway Community College and the state board approved.
Not all of the area’s residents were in support of the transition, according to Rainone.
“There were members of the community that were really upset about us changing the name,” he said. “And it really stems from everything that’s happening – eliminating statues and so forth and so on – the community did not necessarily approve, but I think they’ve been accepting of it at this point.”
Despite some of the feelings of those living locally, the last class to graduate from Dabney S. Lancaster Community College walked the stage on May 13. The school also celebrated the 60th anniversary of its founding in March and is continuing to host events in honor of this milestone and the renaming throughout the summer.
Rainone is hopeful that the new name will be able to carry the college forward into its next 60 years.
“My feeling is that as a community college we are the community’s college,” he said. “And if the name of the college prevented even one individual from attending our college, then I think we certainly did the right thing.”