“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Shakespeare wasn’t wrong, but as with so many things in this world, the sword cuts both ways. While it’s true that renaming a thing doesn’t change its intrinsic characteristics, it’s also true that names are powerful communication tools. Names are evocative. A name has the power to transform abstract concepts into palpable realities, inextricably tying together disparate elements to create a singular impression in the mind of those who speak and hear it. So while the essence of the rose remains unchanged, the perception of the flower would certainly be sullied if events transpired to make the general public associate roses with skunks. The smell of the rose might still be sweet, but who in their right mind would get close enough to find out?
Even if Robert E. Lee was, in reality, the savior of the University as described by the myths and propaganda over the last century of revisionist history (he wasn’t), the bloom is most assuredly off the rose that is his name. To make matters worse, the public exploration of the thorny reality of Lee’s life only reinforces the most negative perceptions surrounding the idiosyncrasies of student life at W&L. The veneration of Lee by agents of the institution; the indoctrination of the students with false history masquerading as “cultural traditions” to be protected; selective disciplinary action to protect the privileged at the expense of the vulnerable in the campus community; all of these aspects of the campus culture, and more, need to be addressed as soon as possible to ensure the physical and emotional safety of current and future students. The easiest (and admittedly performative) step the Board of Trustees can take towards these goals would be to change the name of the institution.
I read with great disappointment what can only be described as a tremendous waste of time and ink published by the Board Emeritus advocating for the retention of Lee in the University name. Asking for further studies and additional proof of the negative impact Lee’s name and legacy has on the University’s ability to recruit and retain a diverse student body adds insult to the injury visited upon students of color on campus – denying the reality of their daily experience – naively hoping that the heat will die down and things will get “back to normal” eventually. This fundamentally fails to recognize and accept that the W&L “normal” has never been adequate for students representing vulnerable and disadvantaged communities. Advocating for preservation of the status quo is tantamount to providing safe haven for an abusive culture that has no place in a modern center of educational excellence.
Non incautus futuri. This is our motto – the guiding principle by which you, the Board of Trustees, are expected to chart a course into the 21st century. It is absurd to suggest that this institution, which has changed names so many times, can not choose a better moniker to represent the values we aspire toward. There is no forward-looking rationale that sees a safer path to the survival of the University by clinging to the false legacy of one past president who happens to be best known as a Confederate war hero. If you want to achieve the stated goals for student diversity, you need to demonstrate a willingness to change the culture. That will require the redefinition of many aspects of student life in Lexington. Why not give the University a name that reflects where we want to go, instead of clinging to one that requires us to constantly make excuses for where we’ve been? Won’t it be much easier to make those explanations AFTER the name has been changed, once the institution has put itself on the right side of the issue?
I believe the time has come for the Board of Trustees to choose universal truth over southern tradition. To demonstrate honor in action, leading by example. To acknowledge the damage done by propagating false narratives from Confederate apologists. To recognize that the University’s failure to represent diverse viewpoints has done a disservice to its alumni by not educating us about the realities that exist outside the ivory tower. To send a message, once and for all, that racism and xenophobia have no place in the campus community. To give the home for ALL of these ideas a name it deserves, so that they might become a reality after all.
Sincerely and respectfully submitted for your consideration,
Erik Christ (‘98)