Some students want Franklin Pierce dropped from UNH Law School’s name

Monitor staff
Published: 6/12/2020 6:19:03 PM

As protests calling for racial justice continue across the country after the death of George Floyd, Concord law students are calling for the removal of the Franklin Pierce name from UNH Franklin Pierce School of Law, which was reinstated as a brand last summer. Now, the school says it will re-evaluate the name.

Last week, students sent letters to school administrators asking for the name to be removed, saying the title connects the school to a racist former U.S. president and his legacy. Some also say the school prioritizes name recognition over being welcoming to black students.

“With the movement that we’re currently in, it felt like an opportune time to take the name off there,” said Adrián Coss, a rising third-year law student who sent one of the letters last week. “It’s wrong to begin with. This is racially insensitive.”

Franklin Pierce, who was president of the United States in the years leading up to the Civil War, was born in Hillsborough and lived in Concord for six years. An act that he signed in 1854 resulted in slavery being expanded into the West.

In a June 5 letter to UNH President James Dean, which was drafted in collaboration with several other students, Coss wrote: “Pierce’s values are not a ‘brand’ we want to celebrate or be associated with in any way. Yet, even while other schools are making concerted efforts to remove (not restore) names and statutes of confederate figures, slave owners, and racist politicians from their institutions, UNH Law chose to do the opposite.”

The law school sent out a press release Friday, saying administrators are seeking feedback about the name from community members and outside advisors, especially from people of color.

Franklin Pierce Law School lost its name in 2010 when it was absorbed by the University of New Hampshire. But in May 2019, the university decided to bring back the name as UNH Franklin Pierce School of Law. An email sent to students at the time explained that bringing back the old name would “recapture the immense brand value of Franklin Pierce and its global network.”

The school has long been renowned for its program in intellectual property law. When the school lost its name, alumni, potential employers and other stakeholders felt “confusion and concern,” that the name-association would be lost, according to an FAQ document from the Communications and Marketing department that was emailed out to faculty, staff and students in September 2019.

“Many alumni between 1973-2010 feared that when the school merged that broad recognition was diminished, and expressed a sense of detachment from the school they knew and loved,” Ellen Musinsky, the school’s alumni liaison, told the Monitor in an email. “The decision to incorporate the old name with the new was in response to requests by some in the law school community who want the law school’s recognition to endure and for future graduates to enjoy the reputation and global network associated with this name.”

Students say they were upset at the lack of student input that went into the decision, which was announced after the school year ended.

“It felt like the decision was already made and there was nothing we could do about it from the beginning,” said Sofia Hyatt, a rising third-year law student. “Some students consider things like this when they are applying to law schools, once you are already at a law school, in the middle of the summer, you are suddenly branded with the name.”

UNH Franklin Pierce Law School has seven black students out of 305 as of October 2019, according to the Standard 509 information report on the school website.

The National Black Law Student Association, based in Washington, D.C., spoke out against UNH School of Law’s name change in June 2019, in a statement published by the National Jurist.

“Pierce’s support for the Fugitive Slave Act and the Kansas-Nebraska Act were abhorrent,” the statement said. “…We do not believe that students are best served by attending a law school named after someone whose legacy was based on maintaining the institution of slavery.”

Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act under pressure from Congress in 1854, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and allowed slavery to be possible in the West. Pierce also supported the Fugitive Slave Act, part of the Compromise of 1850 that required escaped slaves to be returned to their owners even if they were in a free state. Pierce was not a slave owner.

In the September FAQ document, the university referred to Pierce as “a politician of limited ability” and says that through the law school, the Franklin Pierce name has become a brand “divorced from the presidential legacy,” one associated with intellectual property law, and “recognized around the world.”

But the student activists don’t believe it is possible for the name to exist separately from the president.

“He has no place on a law school; it goes directly counter to the school’s mission statement and its supposed dedication to public interest,” Coss said. “It said, it’s more about how people recognize the name in the IP field. And making more money is more important than the fact that we are enshrining and celebrating a terrible person.”

In protest, several students, Hyatt included, have decided they will not walk at graduation in 2021 unless the name is removed from the school.

“We pride ourselves in our law school of course, and we want to feel comfortable hanging a diploma on our wall,” Hyatt said. “I don’t want to have to hang a diploma with that name in my office and have black clients walk in and think ‘that’s just so hurtful.’ ”

Meghan Carpenter, the dean of UNH Franklin Pierce School of Law, wrote in a statement Wednesday that she supports students’ calls to reconsider the school’s relationship to Pierce.

“Our school has an incredible opportunity to become a meaningful part of the national dialogue happening at this moment,” Carpenter wrote. “I’m personally inspired by the voices within our school community who are expressing their feelings on this issue. The school will gather input and engage discussion on a variety of issues related to racial justice, diversity and inclusion, and the Franklin Pierce name will of course be a significant part of these discussions.”

One of the officials who was tasked with listening to student concerns about the name this past fall was Leah Plunkett, associate dean of administration for the law school. Plunkett is currently running for a seat on the Executive Council.

“I fully support robust and frank engagement by our students – as well as all members of the UNH and broader New Hampshire and national communities – about the name change,” Plunkett wrote in a statement to the Monitor on Thursday.

Neither Carpenter nor Plunkett responded to requests for a phone interview, opting to submit statements instead.

In the meantime, students continue to organize, sending letters to the administration and posting on social media with the hashtag #UNHLoud, a phrase inspired by a racial justice movement at Michigan Law School that uses the hashtag #MLawLoud. Hyatt says UNH students have plans to create a petition too.

“We are trying to be more vocal and also more direct,” Hyatt said. “We’re gonna continue fighting this, doing everything we can.”

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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