President’s address outlines plans for university’s future, focuses on speech’s location change

President Will Dudley attributed the change in location to both student discomfort and logistical issues with Lee Chapel.


President Will Dudley delivers the President’s Address to parents in Wilson Hall on Sept. 29. Photo by Liza Moore, ‘21.

Liza Moore

At the request of a group of students, President Dudley delivered his Sept. 29 Parents Weekend address in Wilson Concert Hall, instead of in Lee Chapel.

On top of the location switch out of Lee Chapel, the Board of Trustees announced via email on Oct. 9 that two physical changes to portraits of George Washington and Robert E. Lee will be made immediately to to the chapel. 

The change in location for the president’s address did not go unnoticed by some families in the audience.

In his speech, Dudley focused on the history of the campus. He described in his address how students can “feel the history and enthusiasm” while on Washington and Lee’s campus, and for many of the students, that is one of the reasons they chose this university. From the Liberty Hall Ruins to the Colonnade, Dudley described the history housed within the campus grounds.

In the wake of the Charlottesville riots in August 2017, Dudley formed the Commission of Institutional History and Community to review the university’s history and how it is represented in the community.

In response to the commission’s recommendations, W&L is creating a museum to depict Washington and Lee’s history, which is older than the country itself. The university will be hiring a Director of Institutional History, who will be in charge of overseeing the new museum, Lee Chapel and the University Collections of Art and History, according to Dudley’s Aug. 18 response to the commission’s findings.

“It is personally enriching to learn about the history of the school,” Dudley said.

Dudley also has plans for other future projects, including telling the oral histories of the first African-American and female students who attended the school. He also hopes to create a first-rate digital history tour of the campus in order to educate the larger population, not just W&L’s community and its visitors.

But, even now the controversy surrounding W&L’s historical buildings is present, with Lee Chapel being the focal point of the argument.

After the address, Dudley took questions from the audience and discussion of the chapel was quickly brought to attention.

One parent asked, “Last year your presentation was held in Lee Chapel, so why was it switched this year?”

“[Today] it is hard to imagine you are not at a Confederate shrine” while in the chapel, Dudley said.

Especially, he went on, with Lee’s tomb lying in the front like an altar and a portrait of him in his Confederate uniform hanging on the wall. Dudley also noted that Lee never intended for the space to be transformed into his crypt. In fact, Dudley said Lee had originally suggested the chapel’s construction for the benefit of the community.

Despite the commission’s recommendation to turn Lee Chapel into a museum, Dudley said that he recognized the chapel’s importance on campus and the fact that it was originally built in 1868 as a communal space for students.

Dudley went on to say that it is “important to make all students in the twenty-first century feel as though the chapel is their space,” but it is complicated to separate the building’s history from its reputation.

“To be honest, some families feel uncomfortable with the space right now,” he said in answer to the parent’s question. “And…the chapel is too large for a talk this size.”

After Dudley’s address, the Board of Trustees announced that the portraits of both George Washington and Lee dressed in military uniforms will be replaced with portraits of the men in civilian clothing instead. Additionally, during all university events held in the chapel, the doors to the chamber containing the recumbent statue of Lee will be closed.

For some, however, this is not enough. Several students have called for all mandatory university events to be moved out of Lee Chapel.