Ethical College Admissions: Lexington Without Concord

Jim Jump considers history and race at Washington and Lee University and the Virginia Military Institute.

June 14, 2021

Lexington, Va., is a small town of about 7,000 residents located in the Shenandoah Valley where Interstates 81 and 64 diverge. Lexington is usually described with adjectives like “charming” and “quaint,” and it appears on any list of the best small towns in Virginia.

Lexington is also a college town, home to not one but two venerable institutions, Washington and Lee University and Virginia Military Institute. Last week both colleges made news.

On Friday W&L announced that it would retain its name after a yearlong deliberative process within the university community. The name-change discussion arose following the national reckoning last summer ignited by the murder of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. The protests over needless killings of Black citizens during police stops for minor offenses evolved to calls for removing monuments honoring Confederate figures, with the most prominent being Robert E. Lee. Washington and Lee, where Lee served as president for five years following the Civil War, may be the ultimate monument to Lee.

Three days before the Washington and Lee announcement, a special investigative team from the law firm Barnes and Thornburg released its final report into the climate and culture at VMI, especially with regard to race and gender. The investigation was ordered last fall by state leaders, including Governor Ralph Northam, an alumnus of the institute, following an article in The Washington Post alleging an ingrained culture hostile to both women and students of color.

I have followed both stories with more than casual interest. My students regularly attend both colleges, and I have been thinking about respected friends in both admission offices. Admission loosely translates as “to the mission,” but admission offices have to market not only an institution’s mission or aspirations, but also its unique personality and campus culture, both strengths and flaws. Both W&L and VMI are steeped in a proud history, and both have to come to grips with those histories at a time when social norms and attitudes are changing dramatically.

For Washington and Lee, that history is captured in its name. The university’s association with both George Washington and Robert E. Lee is not honorary but “specific,” according to the Board of Trustees’ “Message to the Community” posted on June 4. What had been Liberty Hall Academy was renamed for Washington in 1796 after he made a financial gift that enabled its survival. Lee’s name was added in 1870 after his death while serving as president, credited with “saving and transforming the school after the devastation of the Civil War.”

W&L has reveled in its association with Lee ever since, but how should it respond in a time when he has become a divisive figure? Earlier this year, the faculty voted 188 to 51 to change the name, whereas alumni tended to oppose the change. The board voted 22 to 6 to keep the name but removed Lee’s name from the chapel and decided to physically separate its main auditorium from the Lee family crypt (Lee is buried at W&L, as is his horse, Traveller). It also committed the university to expand its diversity and inclusion initiatives while expressing regret over “the university’s past veneration of the Confederacy and its role in perpetuating ‘The Lost Cause’ myths that sustained racism.” That didn’t satisfy critics, including a faculty member who on Twitter accused the board of being “more afraid of being called woke than racist.”

Is that criticism fair? Confederate “heroes” are overrepresented when it comes to statues and namings, providing a counterpoint to the adage that history is written by winners. I didn’t grow up in the South, so I don’t get the worship and veneration of figures like Lee, but the attempt to turn Lee into a 19th-century Mike Flynn seems false. Can we acknowledge our history, even the ugly warts, without celebrating it? Must we obliterate any mention of figures like Lee, or can we judge them in context?

If any place has a legitimate reason to retain Lee in its name, it’s W&L. I recognize that my perspective is clouded by the fact that I am a white male, and that others see the issue differently. In a time where there is political and cultural division, I struggle to find a rational middle ground, even as I know there are critics who argue that rationality is a form of white supremacy. I’m sorry, but I’m not willing to concede that point.

My real question is whether W&L’s decision to hold on to the Lee name may hurt its ability to attract the diverse applicants required to be the national liberal arts college it aspires and deserves to be. Washington and Lee has an opportunity, fraught with danger, to take Lee’s emphasis on civility (captured in its “speaking tradition”) and honor and to build on those values with a 21st-century commitment to being a college that is traditional but also diverse, inclusive and forward-looking. Is retaining Lee’s name an impediment to that?

Washington and Lee’s neighbor, Virginia Military Institute, is dealing with its own challenges with regard to its past and its resistance to change. Founded in 1839, VMI is the nation’s oldest state-supported military college, and it has a proud history of producing citizen soldiers and leaders. Its graduates possess a loyalty perhaps unmatched by any other college, and it provides needed diversity within the landscape of American higher education.

The external review of VMI’s culture and climate came about after a Washington Post article reported that Black cadets find themselves in an environment where not only is there continuing veneration of the institute’s Confederate history but also racial insensitivity that extends to racial slurs and even references to lynching. Other articles alleged differential treatment of minority students by VMI’s single-sanction honor system.

The Barnes and Thornburg report begins by describing VMI as traditionally “run by white men, for white men.” It describes a culture resistant to changing practices and traditions that lack sensitivity to minority and female students. It also finds that neither the honor system nor the “rat line,” VMI’s two most distinctive and beloved traditions, are responsible for any of the racial or gender issues on Post, VMI’s name for its campus.

The report tells a story that is far more nuanced than the newspaper articles suggest.

Like W&L’s, VMI’s culture is closely tied to its association with a major Confederate figure. Stonewall Jackson, the legendary Confederate general who died from friendly fire at the Battle of Chancellorsville (and whose arm is buried in a different location from the rest of him), was a professor at VMI, a charismatic figure who inspired loyalty from followers who were willing to overlook the fact that he was probably more than a little crazy (fortunately, that would never happen today). Until recently, fourth-class students were required to salute a statue of Jackson. The Corps of Keydets also fought and lost 10 members in the Battle of New Market, and until recently VMI students took the Cadet Oath on that battlefield.

The report alludes to a more fundamental issue that’s not unique to VMI but found on many campuses -- a debate about the essence of an institution. Nearly 20 years ago, I served on a three-person team charged with evaluating VMI’s admissions and financial aid offices. It was fascinating to spend three days on Post, and our report concluded that VMI needed to work hard to overcome unique challenges in recruiting both women and underrepresented minorities.

One of the interesting things we learned was that everyone at VMI had a clear vision of what the essence of the institute was. The only problem was that those visions, while clear, didn’t coincide. The military people asserted that VMI was first and foremost a military school, the faculty believed that VMI was primarily an academic institution, and the athletic administrators and coaches argued that VMI had made a primary commitment to be a Division I athletic school.

The Barnes and Thornburg report suggests that identity crisis still exists and plays into the culture issues that have brought attention to VMI. The report suggests that the real tension at VMI is between athletes and nonathletes. Nonathletes believe that athletes don’t buy in to the full VMI experience and resent that they are excused from many of the disagreeable parts of the experience. Where this crosses into race is a tendency among many associated with VMI to believe that all minority students at VMI are athletes.

The issues facing both colleges make Lexington, Va., a front line in the culture wars. Washington and Lee and VMI are laboratories in the search to translate and adapt programs that have worked successfully in one era into a different era. Are their core values timeless or relics of the past?

The Spanish philosopher George Santayana said that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But what about those who can’t let go of the past and those who want to erase the past?

Share Article

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.


Jim Jump

Back to Top