An End to Cognitive Dissonance

A business school’s name is its brand—but what if that name evokes a history of racial injustice? Shenandoah University recently made a dramatic change to assure that the name of its business school fully aligned with its values.

Halpin-Harrison Hall, home of the Shenandoah University School of Business.

 

VICTOR HUGO, THE French poet and author, once wrote, “Nothing else in the world…not all the armies…is so powerful as an idea whose time has come.”

For Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia, that powerful idea came at 3 p.m. on June 10, 2020, when the board of trustees voted unanimously to remove the name of Harry F. Byrd Jr. from our School of Business.

Less than a week prior to the trustees’ decision, one of our graduate students had circulated an online petition calling for the removal of the Byrd name, which garnered approximately 2,500 signatures in just three days. The university then held an open forum via Zoom and listened to current students, alumni, faculty, neighbors, and anyone else who wanted to have their voices heard. Shortly after the forum, board members began their deliberation and came to their decision within a matter of hours.

To some in our community, this decision might have seemed abrupt and unceremonious. It might have appeared as if the trustees were sweeping away the Byrd name solely in response to the roiling tide of national protests against racial injustice and police brutality following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Many in our community believed that the university was simply reacting to an online petition calling for the name’s removal. But in reality, the vote was the culmination of five years of difficult discussions.  

DEBATING DISSONANCE

For many students, alumni, faculty, staff, and administrators at Shenandoah University, the Byrd name had long been a source of cognitive dissonance. The theory of cognitive dissonance, first postulated in 1957 by American social psychologist Leon Festinger, suggests that humans have an unconscious need for our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors to be in harmony and alignment. In other words, according to Festinger, it is difficult and uncomfortable to hold two disparate thoughts at the same time. This discomfort was the central issue driving the debate over the Byrd name.

On one hand, by all accounts, Byrd was a gracious and generous contributor to Shenandoah University’s success. He was a courtly Southern gentleman and a native of Winchester, and he had a distinguished career in public service and business. A veteran of World War II, Byrd bought and managed several newspapers. He then turned to politics, serving first in the Virginia State Legislature (1948–1965) and later in the United States Senate (1965–1983). He was a scion of what many called the “Byrd Machine,” in that he was part of a Virginia family that wielded great political power during the 19th and 20th centuries.

On the other hand, as a state senator, Byrd also was among the leaders of the “Massive Resistance” movement. Started by his father, U.S. Senator Harry Byrd Sr., this movement aggressively resisted all attempts for school integration after the 1954 landmark decision by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education.

The Massive Resistance movement had devastating, long-term economic and moral consequences for communities of color in Virginia. For example, staring in 1959, Prince Edward County officials closed the entire public school system for five years rather than allow schools to enroll black children. This policy left no schools for black students to attend.



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CHANGE OF HEART

By 1970, Byrd had moved away from the “Dixiecrat” mentality of hardline Southern politicians. He couldn’t bring himself to run for re-election as a Republican, so he successfully ran as an independent for two terms and then retired.

In 1984, the board of trustees of Shenandoah University’s School of Business and then-university-president Jim Davis approached Byrd to ask permission to name the school after him. At the time, Byrd was hesitant at the time to offer his name—he perhaps surmised that one day his name would not be welcomed. However, it would be more than thirty years before that day would come. In the meantime, Byrd agreed to lend his name to the school, where he became a distinguished lecturer, bringing many congressional contemporaries to speak at the school. He also funded scholarships for students, regardless of race.

Later in his life, Byrd shared his thoughts on his history with many individuals, including Miles Davis, former dean of the business school and now president of Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon. According to Miles Davis (no relation to Jim Davis), Byrd privately revealed that he had changed his mind on the school segregation issue. Unfortunately, Byrd never apologized or recanted his position publicly before he died in 2013. (Read Miles Davis’ perspective on the name change in the sidebar “Matters of the Past” below.)

However, Byrd clearly understood the nature of his own personal cognitive dissonance. He reveals as much in a book that he wrote about his 1970 Senate campaign as an independent. In it, he writes, “If one believes that Thomas Jefferson’s philosophy was a liberal one, and historically it has been so construed, then I should be considered a liberal. Like Jefferson, I fear centralization of power. I feel that the least governed are the best governed.

THIS HAS BEEN A TIME TO ALIGN OUR NAME WITH OUR BELIEFS AND BEHAVIORS.

“Today’s liberal favors greater federal power; believes that Washington, D.C., knows best how our local school systems and other local problems should be handled and favors more spending and more taxes. By today’s definition, most certainly I am not a liberal; thus, it follows that I must be a conservative.”

We, too, are left to grapple with Byrd’s complex evolution over the course of his lifetime. In its statement announcing the name change, the university made clear that Byrd’s contributions would be forever remembered and appreciated. At the same time, it emphasized that his belief in and support of segregation throughout the 1950s were anathema “to the strategic plan and mission of establishing a campus culture that fully embraces inclusion and diversity.”

BUILDING A BETTER FUTURE

This moment has been exalted by current students, alumni, and many members of the faculty and staff, who believe the university can now move forward with its values in complete alignment. President Tracy Fitzsimmons acknowledges as much in her official statement. “The board and I understand that we cannot be an institution that serves all students equitably when our business school still holds the name of an individual who denied full integration of schools,” she notes. “Although we cannot change history, we have the power to build a better future in which everyone is treated with respect and receives the same opportunities, regardless of race or ethnicity.”

Fitzsimmons goes on to emphasize that “with life comes experiences, relationships and education that illuminate historical injustices and help us better understand the injustices in our world today. That is what has happened here at Shenandoah. It is during this time in our national history, in which Black individuals continue to experience daily and systemic acts of racism, that we must stand up and act swiftly in order to move forward to a more fair and equitable future.”

For the School of Business, this has been a time to align our name with our beliefs and behaviors. It is also a time for us to expand our understanding of how to move forward to a more fair and equitable future. We can start this process by studying a range of issues through the lens of racism in past and current business practices. To this end, the School of Business is developing a symposium that looks at ways to level the economic playing field in our society—by challenging, for example, the status quo of banking and lending institutions, as well as venture capitalists.

We have a long way to go, but the Shenandoah University School of Business is committed to this process. We will build a curriculum and research agenda that identifies and ameliorates institutionalized practices that have subjected so many to social injustice—and that have kept them from creating personal wealth and stability—for too long.


Astrid Sheil is dean of the Shenandoah University School of Business in Winchester, Virginia.

 

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