Law student group presses administrators, undergrads for swifter campus change

The Coalition for Campus Change demands modifications to university’s use of Lee monuments, portrayal of slave-holding history

Maya Lora

Students at Washington and Lee University’s School of Law have formed a coalition to unite both sides of campus to bring about social change. But it remains unclear if their message has been effective or uniting.

When Danielle Phillips, 2L, arrived on campus for the new year, she had a discussion with a new law student, a member of a more diverse law class, who felt that her African American culture was not welcome on campus.

Phillips said she was hurt by the comment and started to think about how to combat the issue. She wanted to get a united group together, and another leader, Stefanie Evans, 2L, said she started to get the ball rolling on January 16.

The group, named the Coalition for Campus Change, has grown exponentially ever since.

Several students, including Phillips and other leaders Natalie Solopreto, 1L, and Danielle Scott, 1L, got together and came up with some initiatives they felt needed to happen in order to move forward.

Confederate flag replicas were removed from the main chamber of Lee Chapel in 2014 following discussions wiuth W&L law students who were concerned by the symbols’ impact on students. Now, a different law student coalition recommends that the unviersity move all mandatory student events from Lee Chapel to other venues. Photo courtesy of the Richmond Times-Dispatch

The coalition said its mission is to get equal representation of history on campus. The members want the history of minorities, particularly African Americans and the slaves who helped build the university, represented alongside the history presented of other university leaders, particularly Robert E. Lee. They also want Lee’s presence on campus contextualized.

“We were waiting and we came to the decision that if we don’t act now, we’re gonna graduate and this problem is going to go away, and everyone is going to forget what happened and there’s going to be no change on campus,” Evans said.

Evans said they gave the school a whole six months before deciding to take action.

One of the criticisms of the Coalition is that school did do something to get the conversation started. Washington and Lee President Will Dudley formed the Commission on Institutional History and Community, made up of faculty, students, staff and alumni.

The Commission has been tasked with investigating history on campus and coming up with ways to better present the university’s history. It is expected to present its findings at the end of this year.

But the Coalition feels its presence as a student-led movement is still necessary, even with the presence of the Commission.

“The commission is looking at long-term changes or long-term goals, but we looked at things that could be changed now,” Evans said. “What could be done now to make the environment more inclusive?”

The Coalition has come up with a set of short-term, medium-term and long-term goals to address issues it perceives on campus.

Members presented an original list of these goals to President Dudley at a meeting in January, in which Coalition law school leaders were joined by Alexus McGriff, ‘18.

The list includes goals such as: removing mandatory events from Lee Chapel; recognizing the full contextualized history of Lee on the school website and in other admissions materials, including campus tours; renaming Lee House as the ‘President’s House’ and Lee-Jackson House to ‘Freedom House’; and building a museum next to Lee Chapel to commemorate the slaves that helped build the school.

The Coalition has been told that its goals line up with those of the Commission, which has not yet reported its findings or decisions, but Solopreto considers that a bonus. She said the Coalition does not have an issue with the Commission.

“We think it’s more legitimizing to have a student body movement that shows there is demand for what the Commission could propose for the administration,” Solopreto said.

In terms of what the Coalition offers that the Commission doesn’t fill, Solopreto thinks that’s participation.

“You can’t participate in the Commission, unless you’re a student in the Commission,” Solopreto said. “You can’t participate in the act of moving forward to change if you’re waiting. Waiting is not change, waiting is waiting.”

Evans said in all the years since the Confederacy, the school has not made any significant change to address these racial issues.

Evans also said that the last time these issues were publicly discussed, when the Confederate flags were removed from above Lee Chapel, the change made to represent the slaves, the addition of a small plaque, was put somewhere not entirely visible. It wasn’t enough, she said.

“It wasn’t anything to the grandeur of what we offer Robert E. Lee,” Evans said.

This was a sentiment echoed towards the beginning of the year in an interview by Elizabeth Mugo, ’19, one of the students serving on the Commission.

“The problem that basically in a nutshell we have with the commission is, ‘Can they get the job done?’’ Evans said. “You know, they haven’t been able to do it for the last 148 years, the school hasn’t been able to move forward. Can the commission, which represents the administration, really bring about change? Or are they gonna bring about the kind of change that’s pretend–are they gonna make a few concessions?”

Evans also said the administration has too much to think about–it has to think about students, faculty, the community, and the alumni. She said the Coalition only has to represent their own goals and heart.

The Coalition is presenting itself as an apolitical group for change, gathering representatives from several groups at the law school. It recently started reaching out to groups on the undergraduate side, such as the Student Association for Black Unity (SABU) and Amnesty International.

McGriff, the current vice president of SABU, said that SABU’s executive board decided not to partner officially with the Coalition after it presented at one of SABU’s meetings.

McGriff said that it is a great opportunity to get undergraduate and law students to work together, and that the Coalition has the potential to do that.

But SABU felt that the Coalition was putting the “cart before the horse,” which concerned members. McGriff said that the Coalition should get to better know groups such as the Commission to get better organized.

She said the Coalition in its current state may not be necessary alongside the Commission.

McGriff said SABU members were also concerned that the Coalition reached out to the undergraduate side after already laying out certain steps, such as speaking with Dudley.

“I like to knock before entering, instead of kick down before entering,” McGriff said.

Separately, the Coalition said that it had not been advocating for undergraduate beliefs or concerns before approaching certain groups. It said it has been law-school focused before reaching out.

McGriff said that since SABU has worked hard to build communication channels with the rest of the university, so it was hard to want to sign up for something not as well organized or researched.

“We’re willing to still be SABU and let the Coalition be the Coalition and then have support whenever it may arise, possibly on a case-by-case basis,” McGriff said.

Rossella Gabriele, ’19, President of Amnesty International, said student-led movements like the Coalition are important for showing community members how students are feeling.

“The Board of Trustees and other people in power can see how a group of students feel about issues of historical representation on this campus,” Gabriele said.

Amnesty International will hold a vote on whether to work with the Coalition on Monday.

Speaking separately from her role in SABU, McGriff said that she personally sees other issues within the Coalition.

McGriff said she did not appreciate the “attack” tone present from the Coalition at the meeting she attended with President Dudley.

“I just worry that the goal is to paint the administration or these other entities, like the Commission or Strategic Planning, in a light that’s more like, ‘this is the enemy, and they’re not doing anything,’ which isn’t accurate,” McGriff said.

The Coalition has also made progress outside the campus borders.

Lexington Mayor Frank Friedman will publicly sign a declaration for a day celebrating African American and minority leaders on February 15.