UF students create petition to rename Stephen C. O'Connell Center

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. (WCJB) - Some students at the University of Florida are petitioning to remove Stephen C. O'Connell's name from campus. But not everyone is on board. Members of the student government "Challenge party" started the petition yesterday as part of their campaign.

Students at UF say O'Connell's name tarnishes the school's reputation. They hope that the petition gets enough attention to erase his name from the Exactech Arena altogether.

"This person was someone who, if he had had his way, would have black students not even exist at this university," said Shayli Patel, Vice Presidential Candidate for the Challenge Party.

She and her student government campaign members think Stephen C. O'Connell shouldn't have this kind of recognition.

"This man just has a racist past," Patel said.

Their petition, posted on Change.org, asks that the O'Dome be renamed because of it.

"This is just another step in making sure that we're building that campus climate that is really accommodating to people of all backgrounds," Patel said.

UF documents that in 1949, a student named Virgil Hawkins was denied from UF's law school for being black. When he sued, Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice O'Connell concurred with that decision.

"He also served as the university's president and refused to hear the demands of black students, had many of them arrested and gassed," said Patel, citing the information located on UF's website.

That's why students say the change is necessary. But some TV20 viewers weighed in on Facebook in disagreement, writing, "Omitting the truth doesn't erase it" and "I think the political correctness is going overboard."

Others who do want a change just don't see it happening.

"I don't expect the University of Florida to do anything because they're a long-standing establishment and they've got all their own problems that come with being large and bureaucratic," said Kyle Chesney, a laboratory assistant in UF's College of Engineering.

UF released a statement not directly addressing the petition or O'Connell specifically, stating, "We use the lessons from our past to move forward together today."

But the students plan to be persistent.

"At the end of the day somebody has to put it out there, has to spread the information, has to try to make it happen, and we're ready to be those people," Patel said.

The Challenge Party hopes to have students decide on a new name.