The Phi weighs in on a name change

We live in a period that has been characterized by change, change we can see right here at Washington and Lee: Confederate flags have recently been removed from Lee Chapel, despite their representation to one of our university’s presidents and namesake.

Names can carry important symbolic value. As times change, there have been efforts to re-evaluate and alter previously given names.

Many Americans have petitioned for the NFL “Redskins” to change its name. This year, President Obama ordered North America’s tallest peak to be renamed according to its more traditional name, Denali. Since 1917, the peak had been called Mount McKinley, named after President William McKinley, who had never actually visited the mountain.

In fact, there has been discussion of renaming a school that bears Robert E. Lee’s name, Robert E. Lee Elementary School in California. California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez proposed that the school bear a different name. She received support in the community.

The campaign to change the name arose after the South Carolina church shooting in June. Certain community members have labeled Lee as a traitor to the Constitution because he upheld slavery as leader of the Confederate Army.

The desire to change the school’s name is relevant considering Lee’s controversial legacy.

But there is no question that Lee was instrumental in Washington & Lee’s history. At the end of the Civil War in 1865, Lee assumed presidency of what was then Washington College.

Washington College was one of only a few Southern colleges to remain open during the Civil War. The institution had between 30 and 45 students and was nearly bankrupt when Lee was elected President of the College in 1865.

“I have a self-imposed task which I must accomplish,” Lee said. “I have led the young men of the South in battle; I have seen many of them die in the field; I shall devote my remaining energies to training young men to do their duty in life.”

Lee implemented important changes under his five-year presidency. He developed the Lexington Law School, instituted classes in journalism that resulted in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications we have today, established courses in business that led to today’s Williams School of Commerce, broadened the science curriculum and advocated the establishment of applied mathematics, languages and natural and experimental philosophy.

Lee’s legacy at W&L also includes the tradition of honor that continues to permeate our campus culture. He laid the groundwork for our honor system.

Following Lee’s death in 1870, the trustees added his name to the institution and Washington College became Washington and Lee University.

Outside of the W&L community, his reputation from the Civil War prevails and overshadows his contributions following the war. He continues to symbolize secession and support of slavery, although that is unrelated to his inclusion in the university’s name.

“Affection for and criticism of Lee are not mutually exclusive,” President Kenneth Ruscio stated in his essay, “Judging Patron Saints,” in 2012.

A simple name change to an elementary school will not be able to rewrite history. In fact, it seems that by removing Lee’s name from the elementary school, supporters are disregarding the complete picture of Lee’s legacy, especially when it comes to education.

Instead of dwelling on the past, proponents of the name change should realize that our country is not the place it was in Lee’s time. While it can’t be denied that Lee owned slaves, he also made a lasting impact on education throughout the nation.

Without Lee, W&L would  join the ranks of several other institutions of higher learning that lack an honor code, a speaking tradition and a strong sense of civility. Without Lee, W&L students wouldn’t dare leave their computers or backpacks unattended in the library.

We can appreciate Lee’s contributions to the university while remaining critical of his beliefs. With all of Lee’s contributions to our school, we honor him in our school’s name. This name attribution highlights his lasting impact on W&L.