As a young woman from a small town in Georgia, I was rather overwhelmed when I came to Washington & Lee in the fall of 1994. I was in many senses a big fish from a small pond, and I came to appreciate the intellectual challenges of the “larger” pond I found in Lexington considerably. The interdisciplinary coursework I tackled in the Honors program forced me to extend myself and expect more of myself, and my academic experience as an undergraduate in the English department prepared me well for graduate school at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. That education unfortunately had glaring blind spots that I failed to examine until much, much later.
Robert E. Lee was not the gentleman scholar committed to a life of honor as I had been led to believe. He did not attempt to eradicate the institution of slavery but rather benefitted from and participated in it. My willingness to accept the false narratives perpetuated at the university now embarrasses me, and I cannot reconcile a continued acceptance of Lee as a namesake of the university I love with my own faith and beliefs. Lee is not a figure I can admire and seek to emulate, even as a man of his time. His tenure as president was not a model for servant leadership, and he did not consistently and emphatically mold students into men of honor.
As I read and learn more about the history of racial injustices in our country, I feel a particular affinity for a quotation by Maya Angelou: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.” Washington & Lee’s community of students, faculty, administrators, staff, and alumni now knows better. The University’s administration and Board of Trustees have the opportunity to show that we are a community that lives up to the ideals of honor, integrity, and civility we profess.
Washington & Lee not only gave me an education but also led me to my husband, Doug (’97). We have four smart, intellectually curious children, and Doug and I have discussed on numerous occasions whether we would encourage any of our children to go to Washington & Lee. As parents, we don’t want a future that’s just “good enough” for our children. We want them to receive the best possible education and the best possible opportunities. This is possible only at a school that looks to the future and prioritizes their futures.
Washington & Lee must change its name, and Lee must go, as one of many steps needed to make the university welcoming, supportive, and inclusive to students of all races and creeds. A true liberal arts education cannot be achieved in a cultural vacuum that clings to its past. I implore you, and the Board of Trustees, to look to the university’s future and to change the university name for its future students.
Robin Seaton Brown
Class of 1998, B.A. in English
M.A., ABD in English, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill