Washington and Lee University will not change name

Updated: Jun. 4, 2021 at 11:41 AM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Va. (WDBJ) - Washington and Lee University will not change its name, choosing to continue under its current name. That decision was made via a 22-6 decision by its Board of Trustees.

The board also decided to expand diversity and inclusion initiatives and make changes to campus buildings, practices, and governance. The decisions follow an 11-month review of the university’s name, symbols and other issues related to its history and campus environment.

The board announced the decisions in a statement to the university community, citing two findings from its review: There is broad support for advancing W&L’s commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion. At the same time, there is no consensus regarding a name change, according to the board.

In the end, the board supported an expanded portfolio of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and a series of changes to campus symbols and buildings. With respect to the core question of the university name, the board concluded “continuity is the best path forward for fulfilling the university’s mission.”

To advance the university’s commitment to diversity, the board announced a series of commitments and actions, including:

  • $225 million for scholarships, curricular development, and student support, including raising funds to achieve our existing commitment to become need-blind in admissions and to guarantee funding for an internship or equivalent experience for every student.
  • The establishment of a new academic center for the study of Southern race relations, culture, and politics.
  • Changes to campus symbols and buildings, including redesigning the diploma, renaming and renovating Lee Chapel, and discontinuing Founders Day.
  • Expanding the board’s diversity representation; forming a board committee on diversity, equity, and inclusion; and leading an examination of campus residential and social institutions.

Washington and Lee University is named for George Washington, whose gift of James River Canal stock to Liberty Hall Academy in 1796 ensured the school’s survival, and Robert E. Lee, whose leadership as President of Washington College from 1865 until his death in 1870 restored the institution after the Civil War.

Applauding the decision is a group called The Generals Redoubt, seeking to “uphold the history, traditions, culture and values of the university.”

Read its statement here:

The Washington and Lee University’s Board of Trustees’ reaffirmation of the name of the college was the correct and responsible decision, according to officials with The Generals Redoubt, a group seeking to uphold the history, traditions, culture and values of the University.

“Washington and Lee University is nationally recognized as one of the preeminent small liberal arts colleges in the United States.

“Efforts to diminish the University’s status by changing its name and destroying the long-established brand were counterproductive and made no logical, educational or financial sense. We are pleased the Board of Trustees recognized the potential harm that could result from a name change,” said Tom Rideout, president of The Generals Redoubt (TGR).

After initially rejecting efforts to replace the name of Robert E. Lee, and possibly that of George Washington 3 years ago, the Board of Trustees reopened the issue in August 2020 and conducted an extensive review of the matter.

“The truth is the college was renamed in honor of Washington because his financial gift allowed the school to continue; Robert E. Lee’s name was added because his five years as president allowed the school to survive the aftermath of the Civil War and flourish.

“Without those two benefactors, it is highly doubtful that there would be a Washington and Lee University as we know it today,” said Rideout, a 1963 alumnus of W&L.

“We understand the college’s namesakes may be controversial when viewed by today’s standards, but we believe it is important to view them both within their historical context – acknowledge their flaws but recognize their contributions.

“However, 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.

“It is our hope that the Trustees’ decision sends a clear signal that the course the University has followed so successfully for the past several decades will be continued for many decades to come,” Rideout added.

“We believe it is time to put the matter of changing the name behind us, once and for all, and look ahead to the future and the continued success of Washington and Lee University,” said Dr. Neely Young, TGR Vice President.

However, there are parts of the Board of Trustees’ announcement with which The Generals Redoubt disagrees, particularly the statement that the University has, in the past, promoted or supported the “veneration of the Confederacy and its role in perpetuating ‘The Lost Cause’ myths which sustain racism.” The Board offers no evidence for this statement, and we believe it is fundamentally untrue, said Young.

The group also disagrees with many of the proposed changes to campus symbols, buildings and practices and believes all current College and School of Law students should be given the option of receiving the traditional diploma displaying pictures of Lee and Washington or the newly-designed diploma.

With the name-change issue now settled, The Generals Redoubt will continue its focus on preserving and honoring the traditions, history, culture, values and educational excellence of the University, said Young.

In a release from the university:

Despite these vital contributions, the board acknowledged that the association with its namesakes can be painful to those who continue to experience racism. It repudiated racial injustice in any form and expressed regret for the University’s past veneration of the Confederacy and the fact that the university itself owned human beings and benefited from their forced labor and sale. It also reiterated its ongoing commitment to conducting rigorous and nuanced explorations of W&L’s history with humility and honesty.

The board concluded that the university’s name recognizes the connections of its namesakes to the institution, but is also associated with an exceptional liberal arts and legal education and common experiences and values that are independent of the personal histories of the two men. It cited the university’s name and reputation as a source of strength and resources that it may build and draw upon to advance its mission and support the students, staff, programs and facilities to meet its strategic goals.

The board noted that the deep divides in the W&L community will take time to heal. At the same time, it expressed hope that the university would be strengthened and improved as a result of this process.

“We are confident that W&L will emerge stronger as a result of our active engagement on these issues, the work we have done together, and the actions and commitments we are taking,” said the board in its statement. “We look forward to continuing to engage our community on these critical issues as we execute on our Strategic Plan in support of our mission.”

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