Ethical College Admissions: A Tale of Two Washington and Lees

Jim Jump considers an attempt to confront an institution's history.

June 18, 2018

“Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” That assertion, credited to the philosopher George Santayana, has been widely quoted (and misquoted) to the point that it has entered the public consciousness, to the delight of historians and professors of history.

But what about those who can’t, or won’t, forget the past? What kind of doom awaits them?

Over the past couple of years, that question has evolved from being theoretical to being timely and pressing as the nation and its institutions of higher learning have had to confront their histories. For a number of prestigious colleges and universities, that has meant coming to terms with an institutional history that includes slave ownership.

For other colleges and some cities, the issue is coming to grips with statues and monuments celebrating Confederate leaders such as Robert E. Lee. That issue took on national significance last fall after the events of Aug. 12 in Charlottesville, Va., where a white supremacist march against removing a statue of Lee turned violent and deadly. Shortly after that incident, statues of Lee were removed from several cities.

The changing narrative about Lee, seen by some as esteemed military man and model of personal integrity and by others as defender of slavery and even traitor, has been most challenging for those institutions named for him, and in the past couple of months two institutions co-named for George Washington and Robert E. Lee, both located in Virginia, have chosen different paths in responding to the controversy about their Confederate namesake.

Just over a week ago the Arlington County School Board voted unanimously to change the name of Washington-Lee High School, arguing that honoring Lee does not represent what Arlington County schools stand for in the 21st century. The high school opened in 1925, and the choice of Lee as a namesake had local significance. Lee lived in Arlington at the beginning of the Civil War, on land where Arlington National Cemetery now resides.

Washington and Lee University in Lexington has, in contrast, examined its name and connection to Lee by appointing a 12-member Commission on Institutional History and Community. That commission issued its report a month ago, and one of its 31 recommendations was that the university not change its name at this time, believing that “W&L can maintain its namesakes while being a relevant, ethical, and vibrant 21st-century institution.”

For Washington and Lee, the discussion about the legacy of Robert E. Lee is personal. Lee assumed the presidency of what was then Washington College at the conclusion of the Civil War and spent the remaining five years of his life there. It is not a stretch to say that he saved the school from closing, and his influence continues to be felt today. Following his death in 1870, the university was renamed as Washington and Lee.

I have read the commission report, and it strikes me as an honest, thoughtful and reflective attempt to study the institution’s history, especially the legacy of Lee, and how that history influences the culture of the university today. In establishing the commission, Washington and Lee president Will Dudley expressed hope that W&L could “set a national example by demonstrating how the divisive issues can be addressed thoughtfully and effectively.” Brian Murchison, a law professor and chair of the commission, described the process in a phone interview as “Exactly what a university is supposed to be doing,” searching for a truth that may be complex and nuanced, engaging in reasoned discussion and critical thinking about issues that are sensitive and where consensus is hard to find.

Murchison commented that the report deals with two major issues that have an “organic connection.” One is the accurate history of the university, and the other is how its story is portrayed on the physical campus.

Washington and Lee traces its origins to the 1749 founding of Augusta Academy, a small classical grammar school. Renamed Liberty Hall, it began offering college-level courses in 1785, and in 1796 George Washington, during his second term as the nation’s first president, gave the school its first major endowment by donating $20,000 in James River Canal stock. In 1799 John Chavis, the first African-American to receive a college education in the United States, completed his studies there, and in 1813 the school was renamed Washington College.

In August of 1865, Robert E. Lee was appointed president of the college and served until his death in 1870. One of the reasons for the establishment of the commission was that even today much of the discussion of Washington and Lee’s history focuses on that five-year stretch, ignoring its evolution into a leading national liberal arts college during the latter part of the 20th century.

Much of Lee’s legacy is shrouded in myth. There is no question that Washington College’s survival was endangered when Lee took over. He raised money and “brand awareness” and revitalized the curriculum by adding subjects like modern languages, chemistry, advanced mathematics and journalism. He is also commonly credited with establishing W&L’s strong honor system, although the report clearly show that an honor system was in place as early as the 1840s. Lee was successful enough that two other southern institutions, Randolph-Macon College and the University of the South (better known as Sewanee) attempted to hire Jefferson Davis as president.

But is the veneration accorded Lee a product of his tenure as president or his tenure as commander of the Confederate forces? The report suggests the latter, pointing out that most of the portraits of Lee on campus show him as a general rather than as a civilian educator. One of the commission's recommendations is to refer to Robert E. Lee only as President Lee in Washington and Lee publications.

A physical manifestation of Lee’s legacy is the Lee Chapel, built during his presidential tenure as a place for the campus community to assemble. It has become the iconic building on campus, still used today for major campus events. The basement of the chapel includes the Lee family crypt and a museum.

But does the chapel memorialize Washington and Lee’s history, Lee himself or the Lost Cause? The report states that the chapel communicates the “sacralization of Lee” and indicates that a portion of the student body don’t attend events in the chapel due to discomfort, and one of the commission’s recommendations is to turn the chapel into a museum and build a new community space to take its place.

The Washington and Lee commission raises important questions that resound far beyond Lexington. Where is the line between remembering history and worshipping history? How do you deal with a history that may be unpleasant? Should we judge historical figures by today’s knowledge and values or within the context of the times in which they lived? And how do you show proper respect for your history in changing times?

That’s the challenge facing Washington and Lee. It lags behind other national colleges and universities in the diversity of its student body, and at some point it may have to decide whether one tradition -- its adherence to the legacy of Lee -- is hurting another tradition, its aspiration to be a leading national liberal arts college. That’s a tough conversation to have, but the commission report demonstrates that Washington and Lee has the willingness, integrity and strength of community to tackle it head-on.


Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher’s since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women’s basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


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