The Final Four

Faculty Dissent, Race Policy Focus Of Confrontation at George Mason, 1970

The Washington Post covered a May 1970 open forum at George Mason College in which students blamed Chancellor Thompson for making Black students "not welcome."

Between 1969 and 1971, George Mason College faced four inquiries into its lagging enrollment of Black applicants. These probes included the Rotch study examining racial discrimination at the University of Virginia and its branch colleges, an investigation by the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), an investigation by the Fairfax Council on Human Relations (FCHR), and an investigation by the Virginia State Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights (VSAC). 

A May 1970 open meeting on GMC's campus featured “more than 200 students" who "angrily confronted” GMC Chancellor Lorin Thompson about the fact that “black students are not welcome" on campus.  The Virginia State Advisory Committee scheduled an all-day public hearing in Fairfax, Virginia, on 13 April 1971, at which professors and undergraduates spoke.  Testimony from the April 1971 public hearing was published by the United States Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) in a report titled, George Mason College: For All the People?  Taken together, the four official inquiries uncovered substantial complaints that the UVA branch in Fairfax implemented practices restricting campus diversity. [1]

Documentation of George Mason College’s homogenous student body began in the early 1960s.  The United States Commission on Civil Rights issued a finding in November 1963 that listed GMC as a “segregated” all-white institution.  GMC Director John Finley immediately protested this designation. His letter to the USCCR, stating that GMC was not purposely “segregated," admitted that the college “never had a negro student” and that it did “not exert the same effort to recruit negro high school seniors that we exert in the recruitment of white students.”[2]

Finley's admission was a harbinger of what was to come. In 1969, GMC’s parent institution, the University of Virginia, commissioned a study by William Rotch to investigate low Black enrollment within the UVA system. While the resulting Rotch Report did not focus extensively on UVA’s branch colleges, its suggestions for increasing Black enrollment were passed along to GMC Chancellor Lorin Thompson. He did not adopt the Rotch recommendations, which included hiring Black admissions officers and creating a more flexible application process placing more weight on class ranking than SAT scores.[3]

Calling Accreditation into Question, 1971

This letter sent on February 23, 1971, revealed that Fairfax Council on Human Relations President David Scull believed that the "charges of racial bias" against George Mason College should factor into the school's accreditation.

The federal government increasingly scrutinized George Mason College, UVA, and other Virginia institutions of higher education. Under the leadership of Regional Civil Rights Director Dr. Eloise Severinson, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare conducted a compliance review at UVA and its branch colleges in 1969 and 1970.[4] Severinson informed Chancellor Lorin Thompson of possible violations of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. HEW’s findings revealed GMC's low Black enrollment low, sports activities at the nearby segregated Country Club of Fairfax, and honored a donor’s request to allocate scholarship money exclusively for white Christian female undergraduates.[5] Severinson asked Thompson to address these serious issues and potential contraventions of the law.[6]

Chancellor Thompson answered Severinson with evasive responses while managing criticism leveled by another pressure group, the Fairfax Council on Human Relations (FCHR). This volunteer community council advocated for desegregation and school integration in Northern Virginia following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.[7] In 1970, the FCHR examined “charges of racial discrimination” at GMC.  Over a period of six months, the council conducted interviews with college faculty, staff, and students, as well as neighboring residents and local high school guidance counselors. In January of 1971, FHCR released a report concluding that “administration attitudes and practices...result[ed] in a systematic exclusion of black persons” and caused “the black community of Northern Virginia” to “feel little or no sense of involvement with George Mason College.”  Racial discrimination was linked to the “refusal of [GMC] administration to...meet obligations of community leadership.” The FCHR hoped the report would result in “ensuing discussions” and “constructive” solutions that facilitated "educational opportunity for all young people in Northern Virginia.”[8]

Although the Fairfax Council on Human Relations had no formal authority, it continued to urge GMC to diversify the college's student body. FCHR President David Scull sent a copy of the group's report with a letter to the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges & Schools. Scull informed the Commission that an investigation of “charges of racial bias” should “prove relevant to your study” of the "accreditation of George Mason College."[9] While GMC’s accreditation was preserved, the FCHR report clearly had an impact.[10]

Cover of "George Mason College: For All The People?" Report, 1971

 

The cover of Chancellor Lorin Thompson's personal copy of the Virginia State Advisory Committee's report. Thompson received this advanced copy of the report on July 16, 1971, five days before its public release.

Press Release from the Fairfax County Council on Human Relations, 1971

The Fairfax County Council on Human Relations issued this press release on January 12, 1971, to announce their findings of "racial exclusiveness" at George Mason College.

One key result of the Fairfax Council on Human Relations’ effort is that it spurred the Virginia State Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights to launch a formal inquiry into GMC administrative practices. William Durland, Chairman of the George Mason Committee within the FCHR, commented in February of 1971 that “on the basis of our [report,] the Virginia State Advisory Committee" would appoint a special "subcommittee, with the full investigatory powers to hold official hearings . . . [into] practices perpetuating racial exclusion at George Mason College.” The chairman of the VSAC, David Sprunt, affirmed that the Fairfax report was the “principal impetus” of the probe. A further connection between the two organizations came through shared membership. David Scull served as both the President of the Fairfax Council on Human Relations and a member of the Virginia State Advisory Committee.[11]

The Virginia State Advisory Committee’s investigation included a forum on race relations at GMC on April 13, 1971.  College officials, current and past faculty and students, and Fairfax community members testified before the committee. Four months later the US Commission on Civil Rights published George Mason College: For All the People?  This report recorded VSAC statements given at the April public hearing, which documented a hostile racial climate on campus, GMC's use of subjective admissions tests favoring white applicants, poor relationships with the wider Black community in Fairfax, and lax recruitment of Black students and faculty. The final observation was blunt and brief: George Mason College was “conceived of, by, and for the white community of Northern Virginia.”[12]

By Anthony Guidone

[1] The Washington Post, May 9, 1970.

[2] J.N.G. Finley to Howard W. Rogerson, 4 December 1963, Office of the President records, Series 2: Early History, Box 2, Folder 19, Special Collections Research Center, University Libraries, George Mason University.

[3] William Rotch, Report of the President’s Committee on Education and Employment Opportunities, Obligations and Rights, 1969, Office of the President Records Series 3, Box 4, Folder 2, Special Collections Research Center, University Libraries, George Mason University.

[4] Eloise Severinson to Edgar F. Shannon, 10 April 1969, Office of the President Records, Series 3, Box 14, Folder 7, Special Collections Research Center, University Libraries, George Mason University.

[5] Eloise Severinson to Lorin A. Thompson, 11 June 1970, Office of the President Papers, Series 3, Box 13, Folder 5, Special Collections Research Center, University Libraries, George Mason University.; Eloise Severinson to Lorin A. Thompson, 26 March 1971, Office of the President Papers, Series 3, Box 14, Folder 8, Special Collections Research Center, University Libraries, George Mason University. For more on Eloise Severinson, see Veronica Mata, "The Women Whistleblowers of George Mason" Center for Mason Legacies: Black Lives Next Door Omeka exhibit, http://silverbox.gmu.edu/legacy/s/blnd/page/the-women-whistleblowers-of-george-mason.

[6] Eloise Severinson to Lorin A. Thompson, 2 July 1971, Lorin A. Thompson to Eloise Severinson, 6 August 1971, John C. Wood papers, Collection #C0115, Box 1, Folder 2, Special Collections Research Center, University Libraries, George Mason University.

[7] For more on the Fairfax Council on Human Relations, see David H. SCULL, Petitioner, v. COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA ex rel. COMMITTEE ON LAW REFORM AND RACIAL ACTIVITIES, https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/359/344, accessed August 6, 2021; Fairfax County Council on Human Relations, “Newsletter 25, Fairfax County Council on Human Relations, 3/14/1961, 4 pages.,” Project DAPS, accessed August 6, 2021, http://projectdaps.org/items/show/1894; Fairfax County Council on Human Relations, “Statement, Local Option and School Desegregation Progress, Fairfax County Council on Human Relations, 3/31/1960,” Project DAPS, accessed August 6, 2021, http://projectdaps.org/items/show/1895; Fairfax County Council on Human Relations, “Newsletter of the Fairfax County Council on Human Relations, January 19, 1961.,” Project DAPS, accessed August 6, 2021, http://projectdaps.org/items/show/722.

[8] David Scull to William Durland, 15 June 1970 & David Scull to Lorin A. Thompson, 11 January 1971, Office of the President Records, Series 3, Box 7, Folder 4, Special Collections Research Center, University Libraries, George Mason University; Fairfax County Council on Human Relations – Final Report of the Special Committee on George Mason College, January 12, 1971, John C. Wood Papers, Box 1, Folder 3, Special Collections Research Center, University Libraries, George Mason University; Fairfax County Council on Human Relations Press Release, 12 January 1971, Office of the President Records, Series 3, Box 7, Folder 4, Special Collections Research Center, University Libraries, George Mason University.

[9] David Scull to Gordon Sweet, 23 February 1971, John C. Wood Papers, Box 1, Folder 3, Special Collections Research Center, University Libraries, George Mason University.

[10] The FCHR report was discussed in Virginia newspapers. See Northern Virginia Sun, January 13, 1971, January 16, 1971, January 18, 1971, January 21, 1971, January 29, 1971, & February 11, 1971; Washington Post, January 13, 1971; Virginia Sentinel, January 14, 1971, January 28, 1971.

[11] Northern Virginia Sun, February 11, 1971; A. Hugo Blankingship to David W. Sprunt, 23 April 1971, John C. Wood Papers, Box 1, Folder 3, Special Collections Research Center, University Libraries, George Mason University.

[12] Virginia State Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, George Mason College: For All the People? (US Commission on Civil Rights: July 1971), 27. Underscored in the original.

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