Full Text of Our Letter
August 12, 2020
Rector, Board of Trustees
204 W. Washington Street
Washington and Lee University
Lexington, VA 24450
Dear Mr. McAlevey and the Board of Trustees:
The undersigned include alumni, students, and friends of Washington and Lee University, as well as concerned citizens.
We applaud the Board’s recent decision to appoint a committee of Trustees to investigate and consider our University’s name and the symbols that represent it. We acknowledge the difficult path ahead as we reckon with our past, though we note that the University’s challenges run deeper than “the dissonance between our namesakes’ connections to slavery and their significant contributions to the University,” as described in your July 7 letter to the W&L community. We write to the Board of Trustees in a spirit of love for the University, and offer ourselves as partners to the Board as it strives to improve one of the best liberal arts universities in the country and ensure its future viability.
To those ends, we call on the Board of Trustees at Washington and Lee University to:
A. Honor the Mission, Vision, and Community “We Will” Commitments in the Strategic Plan by accelerating the implementation of the Community Initiatives related to equity, diversity, and inclusion in terms of recruiting, culture, campus climate, and support.
B. Act immediately to solve day-to-day problems of campus climate related to threatening, exclusionary, and marginalizing behavior that injures the University community.
C. Affirm the University’s commitment to diversity and inclusion by adding more Trustees who are Black, people of color, and women. We encourage the Board to lead by example in making itself look like the University that it wishes to build.
D. Remove Robert E. Lee from the name and brand of the University, and rename the institution.
Below, we provide additional context for our requests.
A. Accelerate the Implementation of Community Initiatives in the Strategic Plan
The University’s Vision is that it will “be a national model for liberal arts education in the 21st century” as it delivers on its Mission to ensure that graduates are prepared for “engaged citizenship in a global and diverse society.”
Accordingly, on May 12, 2018, the Board of Trustees adopted a Strategic Plan that prioritizes equity, diversity, and inclusion. It declares from the start that “Washington and Lee is a welcoming, friendly, and mutually supportive community.” It commits to increase campus diversity while promoting inclusion, engagement, and connection among members of the University community.
Specifically, the Strategic Plan lists transformative Community Initiatives designed to bring Board commitments to fruition. These initiatives call for eliminating financial barriers both to admission and to full participation in student life; promoting diversity both through recruiting and engagement in campus experiences; fostering inclusivity; and providing and funding the necessary support structures to ensure that all students may thrive.
The Board and University leadership have laid out an excellent plan. In order to be who we say we are in that plan, our actions must match our words in a timely fashion. As such, the Board needs to accelerate the pace of strategic change by driving the conversation, providing the necessary resources, and holding university leaders accountable for results.
B. Immediately Address Problems of Exclusion Related to Campus Climate
We encourage swift and bold decisions at the operational level to address campus climate, which allows racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and other forms of threatening, exclusionary, and marginalizing behavior to derail the community that the Board describes as “our most valuable asset.” Such problems have been acknowledged and experienced by members of the W&L family for decades, and have been highlighted recently via social media and letters to the University. To solve this debilitating problem, we recommend that the University:
- Proactively solicit, prioritize, and accept unfiltered feedback from current students and recent alumni from the classes of 2017-2020, who are best informed to speak to the current campus climate. When students and young alumni describe threatening, exclusionary, or marginalizing behavior, the Board should receive that information as factual. Consistent and emerging narratives provide data that is just as valid—and is often more current—than statistical data.
- Appropriately and immediately fund and staff administrative offices and support functions with diverse individuals, which will enable and empower all students to thrive and have a full experience at the University.
- Reform or eliminate systems, organizations, and events that maintain and/or foster exclusion and division on campus.
C. Diversify the Board of Trustees
We call on the Board to lead by example in demonstrating its commitment to diversity and inclusion.
At present, 21 of 31 Trustees are white men.
Except for the brief studies of John Chavis at Liberty Hall Academy, the first Black students matriculated at W&L in 1966, yet only 4 Black people have ever served as Trustees, and none have been women. At present, 2 of 31 Trustees are Black, with 1 additional Trustee of color.
The first women matriculated at the law school in 1972, and the first women matriculated at the college in 1985. Coeducation has been the transformative event for W&L, and over 50% of the student body are women, yet only 7 of 31 Trustees are women.
To properly reflect the University in its current and aspirational forms, the Board of Trustees should be—at a minimum—one-half women and one-third Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC). We call on the Board to take advantage of the next 9 appointment periods (October 2020 through May 2023), in conjunction with its ability to expand to as many as 40 members, to intentionally add members who are women, BIPOC, and LGTBQIA+.
D. Rename and Rebrand the University
Robert E. Lee set the University on a fortuitous path after the Civil War. But his contribution has been embellished through successive generations by proponents of Lost Cause myths, including the University itself. Members of the Washington and Lee community have long viewed Lee in a more subjective context than others do.
It is time to acknowledge that the University’s perceptions of Lee as educator and healer have been clouded by apologist sentiments and misinformation. To the rest of the world, Robert E. Lee was, is, and always will be General Lee, the most prominent leader of the Confederacy and a military champion of both slavery and white supremacy. These perceptions are valid because they are based in history. Even when he was President of Washington College, everyone—Trustees, faculty, students, townspeople, politicians, newspapers, and his wife—referred to him as General Lee. The Valentine statue depicts him in uniform, and until 2014, Confederate regimental battle flags hung behind that statue. Until 2018, the painting in Lee Chapel depicted Lee in military uniform. Recent attempts by the University to contextualize Lee have mainly been driven by desires to cast him as a civilian educator, even though he was in the military for 40 of his 45 adult years.
Our call to rename and rebrand the University is based on the following two principles:
Inspired by the Honor System, We Are Committed to the Truth
As we study Robert E. Lee and University history more closely, we discover that naming the University after Lee bestows an undeserved level of personal glory upon him. Only by removing Lee from the pedestal on which he currently stands as a namesake, can the University objectively and credibly examine both Lee and its own history.
Among the 6 Virginians who were Colonels in the U.S. Army at the time of secession, only Lee resigned and chose to become a Confederate. He then led an army against the United States to maintain and expand the enslavement of Black people. His army committed race-based atrocities— for example, enslaving free Black people in Pennsylvania and the massacre in the crater at Petersburg—that would be considered war crimes today.
Lee was an unreformed white supremacist who openly advocated for white racial superiority until the end of his life. It is impossible to separate Lee the college president from the rest of the man, because as President of Washington College, Lee continued to argue that:
- Black people had less intellectual capacity than white people.
- Black people did not have the ambition to work hard and build successful futures.
- Black men should not be allowed to vote.
- Virginia would be better off if Black people would leave the state
Some of Lee’s contributions to the University have been exaggerated, while others have been buried. For example, many in the University community do not know that:
- Other Southern colleges also experienced robust enrollment after the Civil War.
- Lee did not start the Law School.
- Lee dealt ambiguously with students who started a Ku Klux Klan chapter, harassed Black residents, raped Black women, and participated in attempted lynchings.
- Lee did not create the Honor System. In fact, Lee provided evasive and dishonest testimony to Congress as President of Washington College.
Removing Lee from the name of the school does not erase history. It corrects myths, in keeping with the principles of lifelong learning that are essential to the University, as well as the principles of honesty that are foundational to its Honor System.
Honoring Lee Endangers the Future of the University
The Board of Trustees has already declared in the Strategic Plan that the future of the University will be one in which equity, diversity, and inclusion are foundational. Any attempts to create a “welcoming, friendly, and mutually supportive community” are hampered by our association with Lee as a namesake. Lee is no longer an asset to the brand of the University. In fact, his name is an obstacle to our success.
Lee does not accurately reflect the values and 21st century initiatives of the University. Lee is a symbol of white supremacy on par with the Southern Cross Confederate battle flag. As such, his name hinders the recruitment of the best students, faculty, and staff. In his June 23 letter, President Dudley cited the strides made since 2016 regarding the recruitment of tenure-track faculty and students. A closer examination reveals the way that percentages can alter perspective in the case of small sample sizes.
- 20% of tenure-track faculty hires in a 4-year period being Black equates to less than a handful of people, one of whom recently resigned.
- Undergraduate enrollment of domestic students of color has increased by 50% since 2016, but the numbers still remain low.
- In the Fall of 2016, there were 220 domestic students of color out of 1,830 undergraduates; 67 Hispanic or Latino, 59 Asian, 59 multiracial, and 35 Black students.
- In fact, only 327 total Black freshmen enrolled in the 21 years between 1999-2019, as opposed to 8,244 white freshmen.
Additionally, as companies emphasize diversity, equity, and inclusion, they are less likely to recruit students from W&L, given the school’s association with a white supremacist brand, lack of diversity, and reputation for exclusion on campus. This puts our students, and to a lesser extent our alumni, at a disadvantage in the job market.
The name divides the University community. It breaks emotional bonds that drive alumni support, especially among younger alumni. It discourages many alumni from referring prospective students to our alma mater. It will soon detract from fundraising efforts as alumni with no memory of a segregated or single-sex University ascend into their prime earning years.
The University’s current name divides the attention of University leaders between implementing the Strategic Plan and defending the University’s past. This tension will never cease as long as Lee is a namesake.
We thank the Board of Trustees for their service to the University that we love so dearly. We appreciate that you have been put in a difficult position by the decisions of your predecessors, some of whom continue to promote their views to the University community. Rarely do we get to pick the time to do the right thing. The time picks us. Now is the time for the Board to be decisive. As in 1984, when the Board made the correct decision regarding coeducation, circumstances have evolved in a way that time is no longer the ally of the status quo.
We understand that taking the steps we have proposed will not be easy, but all of them are necessary. We urge the Board to act in accordance with its stated vision of the University’s future, as it will not have the benefit of hard, trailing statistical data by which it may defend its decisions. Further, the hard data that does exist requires more thorough analysis.
Ultimately, our goals echo that of the University’s Strategic Plan:
We are justifiably proud of our distinctions, but never complacent. One of our most enduring strengths is the spirit encapsulated in our motto: non incautus futuri—not unmindful of the future—which reflects our commitment to self-examination, to asking how we can be true to ourselves while also getting better, to asking how we can contribute even more to the world that awaits our students.
The Board sets the tone for the University. We commit to support the Board and the University with our time, energy, and money as it makes these critical improvements with a sense of intentionality, purpose, and urgency.
Not Unmindful and Friends
Calling on the University to catch up with history.