Dear President Dudley –
I write to you as an almost-member of the Class of 2002. I left Mobile, Alabama and matriculated in 1998, after receiving a generous full-cost scholarship as, of all things, a Robert E. Lee Scholar. I came to college with the best of intentions and an open mind. I made friends, found extracurriculars that I loved, and even wrote an opinion column for the Ring-Tum Phi. I thought I could carve out my place there. I could not. Despite finding that small circle of excellent friends, I went back home at the end of freshman year. I did not find a place at W&L; I was cut from rush and openly targeted in student publications by name for having the temerity to be a liberal. Aside from my few friends and a few bright spots in class, I was regularly reminded that progressive thought did not belong on the colonnade.
I earned my BA in 2002 from Christopher Newport University, an institution that has been overhauled through the stewardship of President Paul Trible (W&L Law Class of 1971). President Trible has taken the best of W&L – academic rigor, a culture that values honesty and openness, and even an affinity for columns and red brick – and transformed CNU into a world-class public institution that serves students from all walks of life. CNU gave me what W&L’s monoculture could not – a place to belong.
I felt ostracized and alone as a white girl from the Bible Belt. But that’s nothing compared to how the W&L monoculture treats students of color, especially Black students. W&L has sold itself as an academic powerhouse with brilliant faculty and endless opportunity. This image has been bolstered over time by what is an admirable financial commitment to helping students overcome the sticker shock of private college tuition. But what happens when that financial generosity serves as a pair of golden handcuffs, trapping Black students in a culture that does not value or respect them? The days of the Assimilation Committee are gone in name only; there is one culture at W&L, and heaven help you if you’re not conservative, white, wealthy, and Greek.
My freshman year was W&L’s bicenquinquagenary, its 250th anniversary. We edge ever closer to the institution’s 275th year. This school has existed for almost three centuries, and if there’s to be a place for it in the twenty-first century, it’s time for a reckoning. The name needs to change. The brand of the university, irrespective of its scholarship or financial generosity, is tainted by the bloody, racist legacy of the general of the Confederate States of America, which fought tenaciously for the principles of white supremacy and the divine right to hold Black people in chattel slavery.
But this is more fundamental than a name. The name change has to be step one in a thorough, thoughtful reimagining of the culture to respect and embrace difference. It’s not about “inviting Black students to the table”; that implies that they belong only at the behest of white power brokers. This is about rebuilding a culture of equity, of inclusion, and frankly of modernity. To ignore the demands of this moment threatens to reduce the institution to a Lost Cause of its own: clinging to a mirage of gentility – white gentility – and sacrificing the chance to be part of the future.
I understand that there are some loud voices laying claim to the legacy of the institution as one of Southern gentlemen and “Western civilization.” We all know what those words mean: a worldview where the men are men (provided they’re white) and Black Lives Don’t Matter. You have an obligation as the steward of this institution to turn away from those who champion the Lost Cause. Change the name. Start the process of building a culture that we can all be proud of. The moment demands nothing less.
Very truly yours,
Tara L. McCook, almost Class of 2002