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Retaining Its Name

Washington and Lee University has decided to continue under its current name, disappointing advocates who wanted to see the institution reject namesake Robert E. Lee.

June 7, 2021
 
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After much conversation, pushback and debate, the Board of Trustees at Washington and Lee University has voted not to change the institution’s name. The latter part of the name honors Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate States Army and former president of the institution. The board voted 22 to 6.

The name had been the topic of serious conversation at Washington and Lee for the past few years, and advocacy for a change was redoubled after the murder of George Floyd. In the wake of national protests, many colleges and universities re-evaluated their institutions and made changes to symbols and traditions.

The board took up the issue last July and said it would consider and vote on the decision this month.

While the name will remain, other changes will be made, the board announced. The university seeks to raise $160 million to achieve need-blind admissions. Lee Chapel, where the former president is buried, will be renamed University Chapel and altered to separate the auditorium from the crypt and a memorial sculpture of Lee. University diplomas will be changed to remove images of Lee and George Washington, the university’s other namesake. The institution will also discontinue Founders’ Day, a holiday celebrated on Lee’s birthday. It will establish an academic center for the study of Southern race relations.

“The association with our namesakes can be painful to those who continue to experience racism, especially to African Americans, and is seen by some as an impediment to our efforts to attract and support a diverse community,” the board wrote in its announcement. “For others, our name is an appropriate recognition of the specific and significant contributions each man made directly to our institution.”

The board said it repudiated racism and regrets the university’s past veneration of the Confederacy and its role in perpetuating Lost Cause mythology. In 2014, the university took down Confederate flags on display in the chapel. In 2016, it stopped allowing outside Confederate veterans’ groups to hold events in the space. In 2018, a university panel advocated for a number of other changes to symbols and traditions at the university but declined to endorse a name change.

“The name ‘Washington and Lee’ does not define us. We define it,” wrote President William Dudley in a message to campus. “While the name has been unchanged for more than 150 years, the institution has been utterly transformed over that span by integration, coeducation, and sustained innovation.”

The decision was widely criticized by those who had advocated for removing the Lee name. Faculty overwhelmingly voted to support a change, and students organized two protests this year around the name and campus climate.

“Imagine a Board of Trustees more afraid of being called woke than racist,” Carliss Chatman, a professor of law at the university, wrote on Twitter.

Tara Kakkaramadam, a student at Washington and Lee, said it was disrespectful for the board to decide that the pain of Black students is unfounded or not important enough to go against tradition.

"What the board decided on this June is mainly a symbolic conversation. There are so many more layers to the systemic inequalities that need to be unpacked on this campus, and this was the most surface-level of changes up for debate," Kakkaramadam said via email. "And they didn’t even meet us on that -- they settled for a fraction. Words can’t even express how much minorities, especially Black students and faculty, have been failed here."

Nora Demleitner, a professor of law at the university and former dean of the law school, said the decision was a slap in the face to many, especially after 2020’s movements for racial justice.

“It’s just sad to let your students and your faculty down in this way, and I think it says a lot about the attitudes towards both of those constituencies,” she said.

On the other commitments the university has pledged, Demleitner said the university has long been asked to do them and they could have come sooner.

“There’s a lot of benefits and a lot of probably good PR that could have come for the school, that would have attracted a different donor base, that would attract a different type of student, that would attract possibly a different type of faculty,” she said. “It’s a lost opportunity for the institution.”

Otice Carder, a student who was involved in organizing one of the name change protests and who has since transferred from the institution, said that efforts at increasing diversity at Washington and Lee will have difficulty succeeding without a change.

“Having on the forefront of the university something that is off-putting to a lot of more diverse students is going to create a university community that is just not as diverse, and those students are going to continue to be underrepresented,” he said.

“When W&L fails to perform and attract students that its peers can, the board will realize that money can’t fix everything,” he added via email.

In addition to students and faculty, alumni and parents have also been heavily involved in the name change debate. The alumni group Generals Redoubt has advocated for retaining the name, with many members opining that Lee should be remembered for his leadership of the university and positive personal qualities. The group has engaged in letter-writing campaigns and other efforts.

Generals Redoubt applauded the board's decision, saying it is important to view namesakes within their historical context.

"Any attempt to erase history in the name of ‘political correctness’ is simply wrong. The goal of the university should be to educate students to learn and critically challenge issues both past and present through a free exchange of ideas without fear or intimidation," Thomas Rideout, president of the organization, wrote in a statement.

Generals Redoubt objected to many of the other changes the board committed to, including changes to diplomas, the chapel and Founders Day, and the organization criticized the board's assertions about the university's past veneration of the Confederacy.

"All of the proposed changes to campus symbols, buildings, and practices are, in our opinion, further manifestations of the 'erase history' and 'cancel culture' movements which have proliferated at Washington and Lee and in the broader culture in the last few years," Rideout wrote.

Earlier this year, more than 200 university parents endorsed a letter to the board arguing against a name change. They did not release their names and instructed the board to keep them confidential.

“Removing Lee’s name is to deny the uniquely American value of redemption. It is well known that Lee was instrumental in reviving the school after the Civil War. Many of the most honored traditions of the school were initiated by President Lee. His prior actions, though historically relevant, are not why the school was renamed in his honor,” they wrote. “Changing the name is a threat to current financial support and to untold future contributions. Show the world that alumni contributions, if accepted by the university, will always be honored.”

The institution, they wrote, should not try to sanitize its history.

Some alumni, including those in the group Not Unmindful, have advocated for the change. Taylor Woods, who graduated in 2008, said he was disappointed.

“[The board] wants to sound the right rhetorical notes,” he said. “Just say you voted against it, leave it right there. Don’t say you’re making this a more inclusive place, because actions speak louder than words.”

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