Washington and Lee University has for years debated how to reconcile its history with its desire to be seen as an inclusive institution. W&L is named for two slaveholders, one of whom was a Confederate hero and whose identity is honored all over the campus.
After last year's deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. -- organized on the premise of protesting the planned removal of a Lee statue in the city -- Washington and Lee appointed a panel of faculty and staff members, students and alumni to consider questions of its history and how that history is presented on campus. The commission reported in May, recommending that the university keep its nickname and its athletics teams' name (the Generals). But the committee recommended significant changes to the role of Lee Chapel, ending its use for key campus events, and converting the chapel into a museum. The commission also called for W&L to consider the messages it makes by the historical portraits (many of Lee, many in uniform) that are found throughout the campus. The committee said that the university has struggled to recruit black students in part because of its history.
On Tuesday, President William C. Dudley announced his response (and that of the board) to the recommendations. The university's name and team name will remain. And while Dudley said some changes would be made to Lee Chapel, he said key events would continue to be held there. And he didn't comment at all on the proposals for the portraits.
Black student leaders could not be reached for comment late Tuesday. But the editor of a conservative student newspaper that has criticized the commission for not sufficiently honoring Lee praised the president for not following its recommendations on key issues.
The announcement from Washington and Lee comes amid renewed debate at many campuses over what to do about statues of Confederate heroes -- statues that have been honored by white supremacists for years. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill last week, protesters pulled down a statue of a Confederate soldier, prompting a rally on Saturday by people with Confederate flags. At Duke University, which last year removed a statue of Robert E. Lee from its chapel, the university announced this month that it would leave the spot empty, a symbol of American racism.
The Lee Chapel
The commission, which studied the history of the university, noted that the sculpture and other imagery in the chapel were part of an effort in the South in the late 19th century and beyond to make the Confederacy a great cause, worthy of veneration, and to make Confederate heroes into something akin to saints. "By continuing to hold rituals and events in Lee Chapel, the university, wittingly or not, sustains the Shrine of the South and the memory of Lee as a commander of the Confederate Army," the report said. "The commission heard repeatedly in its outreach that the effect is problematic for many students, faculty, staff and alumni." Notably, the commission said, orientation of new students takes place in the chapel, as does the signing of the honor code.
So it recommended that the chapel be converted to a museum, and that all key events be moved elsewhere.
Dudley, however, rejected that recommendation. He stressed that there are separate functions taking place in the chapel and that they can be thought of separately.
"We can and will continue to use Lee Chapel, as our community has done for a century and a half, in the service of the life of the university," he wrote in a message to the campus. "We can and will continue to welcome visitors to Lee's tomb and memorial statue, while ensuring that university events do not feel as though they take place in a Confederate shrine. And we can and will continue to teach the history of W&L, including the history of Lee's presidency and the chapel he built, without converting the building to a museum that would be unavailable for any other purpose. We will take care to preserve the historical value of the chapel and its later addition, while at the same time making certain that the space becomes one in which all members of our community can enjoy participating in important university events."
He said that the Lee family crypt and related statues can "remain intact and open to the public, but functionally separate from the chapel's assembly hall."
As for the honor code ceremony, Dudley said the student government runs the honor code and so can decide for itself where to hold the ceremony.
Hayden W. Daniel, editor of The W&L Spectator, which has criticized attempts to change the way the college portrays its history, said via email that he was generally pleased with the president's response.
"We are elated that Lee Chapel will not be converted into a museum closed to university events and that it will continue to be an integral part of campus events," Daniel said. "We are also happy that the issue of the honor system on Lee Chapel will be left to the students. We are confident that the current students of W&L recognize the importance of Lee Chapel to the school and to the honor system in general, and that they will choose to retain the integral link between the honor system and the chapel. It would seem that Dudley has chosen moderation and discussion over the more radical suggestions of the commission."