JCCC planning to appoint committee to consider renaming Carlsen Center

A photo of the interior of the Carlsen Center, which hosts concerts, dance performances, and screenings. Photo credit FHKE. Used under a Creative Commons license.

More than a decade after accusations of sexual harassment against former president Charles Carlsen, leadership at Johnson County Community College has begun the process that could end in renaming his namesake performing arts center.

The JCCC Board of Trustees reviewed renaming procedures at its Thursday meeting and learned that President Joe Sopcich plans to appoint a naming committee for the Carlsen Center.

After the committee work is complete, the final naming decision will rest with the trustees.

The action came after a recent campaign by JCCC student Samantha Joslin. Joslin wrote an opinion piece in the student newspaper January 27 asking why the center continued to carry Carlsen’s name. Carlsen was accused of inappropriate conduct in 2003, but retired voluntarily in 2006, before the allegations could be fully proven.

“Things were different in 2006. Going through the process of changing a building name over an unproven sexual harassment accusation might’ve seemed dramatic to many. Now, we have entered a time when allegations of this sort are given the weight they deserve, and thank God for that,” Joslin wrote.

She cited other schools that changed names after embarrassments, including the University of Missouri, which changed a building name only a week after a cheating incident by its namesake was discovered. “And yet, after thirteen years the students and staff of our college are still waiting,” she wrote.

The employee alleged that Carlsen began a pattern of standing too close to her and touching her breasts with his forearm. Carlsen denied he did anything wrong after the harassment complaint was filed against him in 2003. The trustees hired a law firm to do an investigation, and in the aftermath, other women supported the allegations.

 The Campus Ledger reported on the incident. Carlsen took a leave of absence, and then retired voluntarily in an effort to save the school from distractions, it was reported at the time.

Various groups and the student newspaper have been trying to get the center renamed for more than a decade. The Campus Ledger called for a name change in 2008, two years after Carlsen retired.

Joslin asked readers to email the college with their thoughts on renaming the Carlsen Center. But Trustee Angeliina Lawson said she hadn’t been able to make a presentation because remote meetings have limited public comment. Joslin instead forwarded the comments to the board members.

Students from JCCC and other schools wrote in. Several of them said they were unaware until recently of the controversy over Carlsen.

Daniela Avila, a recent JCCC grad, said she was shocked to learn of the allegations during a class discussion last year. “Why has no one done anything about it? Why is this not a bigger deal to the school?” she wrote.

Mena Haas, a JCCC student, also did not know about Carlsen’s history upon enrolling. “Not changing the name makes me view JCCC as lazy, unsympathetic and naïve. If the college is okay with keeping this name then what else are they okay with?”

Other writers said the school needed to keep in mind the seriousness of the allegations and their effect on students who experienced sexual abuse who must be reminded by the building name when they pass by.

Kara Martin, a Shawnee Mission Northwest High School student who has also taken JCCC classes, said she had been trying to set up an assembly on sexual assault to help prepare outgoing seniors for college.

“The issue for the Carlsen Center is especially important because it is not only representing the student body but the faculty as well,” she wrote.

Still others expressed dismay at the image the name gives their school “How can I be so proud of my school knowing we are still honoring an alleged sexual predator?” wrote Francisco Gamboa, a JCCC student.

Landen Fields, also a current JCCC student, said the fact that the allegations were not proven should not be the point. “I believe people should be given second and third and maybe even fourth chances,” Fields wrote. “I am not saying in any way that we should forever hate Charles Carlsen. I believe in forgiveness. At the same time, however, we shouldn’t be actively glorifying a man who has done this wrong. It makes it look as though we condone such behavior and JCCC is not a place that does condone behavior like that whatsoever.”

The naming committee will have representatives from the trustees, faculty and student senate, administration and others the administration may choose. Procedures for naming facilities can be found on the college website.