Professors weigh in on dueling alumni groups as Washington and Lee navigates tradition and change

The Generals Redoubt wants to return to tradition. WLAC argues campus hasn’t seen enough progress.


Washington Hall, from the steps of Lee Chapel. Photo by Hannah Denham.

Grace Mamon

Alumni Jenna Worsham, ‘10, and Taylor Woods, ‘08, believe Washington and Lee needs to cut back on its memorialization of Robert E. Lee.

“There are still deeply oppressive social issues on campus. There were when I was there and they continue to this day,” Worsham said. “A lot of great things have happened, and yet, it’s not enough.”

But alum Tom Rideout, ‘63, thinks the university isn’t doing enough to celebrate the legacy of the former university president and Confederate general.

“[Lee] was a highly progressive educator, former superintendent of West Point,” Rideout said, “someone who was trying to basically pay his country back for everything.”

Rideout is the president of The Generals Redoubt, an alumni group that formed in May 2019 and wants to preserve the legacy of the namesakes of Washington and Lee.

Worsham and Woods are two of the founding members of a newly formed alumni group, the Washington and Lee Advocacy Coalition.

“WLAC [wants to] push our university to change in a more progressive and inclusive direction,” Woods said. “We did not want The Generals Redoubt conservative alumni group to be the only ones getting an audience… They don’t represent all of us.”

Worsham said a group of “progressively-minded” alumni felt they needed to pushback against the common notion that all university alumni are conservative.

After the violent Unite the Right Rally in 2017, which protested the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, University President Will Dudley formed the Commission on Institutional History and Community.

Dudley asked the commission to examine “how we can best present our physical campus to take full advantage of its educational potential in a manner that is consistent with our core values,” according to the university website.

In response to the commission’s published report a year later, the Board of Trustees made several changes to campus in October 2018:

The portraits of George Washington and Robert E. Lee in their military regalia no longer hang in Lee Chapel. The doors to the statue chamber remain closed during university events.

Robinson Hall became Chavis Hall in recognition of John Chavis, the first African-American to receive a college education in the country at Washington and Lee’s predecessor, Washington College.

The Lee-Jackson House became the Simpson House after Pamela Simpson, the first woman to become a tenured professor at the university.

The Generals Redoubt formed in response to these changes.

“We found [the changes] as something which endorsed the idea of diminishing Robert E. Lee’s profile in the history of the university,” Rideout said.

But Woods said the Charlottesville riot rightfully pushed the university to reconsider its relationship to Lee and was formative to the development of WLAC.

“If it can happen northeast of Lexington, it can certainly happen in Lexington,” he said.

Worsham said that forming WLAC has helped her feel close to the school again.

“[W&L Action] was more our undercover, liberally-minded alumni,” she said. “We had never had a chance to connect before and share grievances.”

Woods said WLAC began as a secret Facebook group named W&L Action after the riots. W&L Action became WLAC as the group wanted to move away from a hidden social media platform and engage with current students.

Woods and Worsham both visited campus in September 2019 to meet students and educate themselves about its current culture.

English professor Lesley Wheeler said she noticed some of her students were discouraged about the formation of The Generals Redoubt because of its “old-fashioned” ideas.

“I thought students needed to know that there was another group of alumni more than balancing that out,” she said.

One of the goals of WLAC is to be able to financially support activist groups on campus.

“There’s sort of an untapped reservoir of people who are more liberally-minded politically and socially,” Worsham said. “I think it’s a way for alumni too to really get excited about change at W&L, really good change, and try to make it a better place than it was when we were there.”

The forward movement is encapsulated by WLAC’s motto, created by Worsham: “Non Incautus Futuri et Praeteritum.” A play on Washington and Lee’s motto, WLAC’s translates to “not unmindful of the future or the past.”

She said the inspiration came during her senior year at Washington and Lee.

“I always loved the motto,” she said. “But I always found it unfortunately ironic, because in a lot of ways the culture of Washington and Lee is stuck in the 1950s. So how could we possible be thinking about what’s coming?”

Worsham referenced the gender inequality, racial divide and socioeconomic privilege that she saw during her undergraduate years.

Rideout said he cherishes his undergraduate years.

“I had a lot of great experiences, but the greatest experience was just being on that campus,” he said. “Being part of the campus life and being embraced and surrounded by all that history and all the traditions and the values, like the campus kind of wrapped its arms around me.”

He said the values the university strives for today, like free speech and civility, are not that different from the values of its founders.

“These are things that Robert E. Lee would have embraced, and I think that George Washington would have embraced as well,” he said. “So why you would want to replace people who actually embraced those doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. … They’re very much a part of the creation of those values and the sustainability of those values for these many years.”

But a point of contention for The Generals Redoubt is the university’s undergraduate curriculum.

In November 2018, Neely Young, ’66, a founding member of The Generals Redoubt, wrote an essay entitled “The ‘Dumbing Down’ of the curriculum at W&L.” It listed 20 courses that he labelled “of dubious academic value, dedicated to the espousal of a political agenda, trivial, inane, or some combination of the above.”

The list included courses like “Representation of Women, Gender and Sexuality in World Literature,” “Muslims in the Movies” and “Social Inequality and Fair Opportunity.”

“Why cannot a broader approach to curriculum be encouraged?” Young writes in the essay.

English professor Chris Gavaler wrote to Young after seeing that the first two courses on the list, “Creating Comics” and “Superheroes,” were his.

Gavaler co-founded the Rockbridge Civil Discourse Society “in order to bring conservatives and liberals together in open-minded, stereotype-challenging dialogue where both sides learn and, ideally, find and expand common ground,” according to his online blog.

Gavaler and Young emailed extensively and met twice in person.

He said Young made an uninformed judgment based on the titles of the courses and then refused to learn about their content.

“I want alums to be engaged but his engagement is not a good kind,” Gavaler said. “I say this without any reference to what his opinions are, I’m sort of talking about what someone’s approach should be to really anything: learn, get all the information you can, and then draw a conclusion.”

Wheeler, who has taught at the university for 25 years, said she has seen positive change on campus.

“The student body is notably more diverse. There are lots of reasons to feel encouraged,” she said. “People at W&L are much more serious about the idea [of an inclusive community] than they used to be.”

But Worsham and Woods are still pushing for a different approach to Lee.

“I hope we are able to look at the figure of Robert E. Lee as a complicated human being who fought on the wrong side of human history,” Worsham said. “You can’t separate the action from the man.”

Woods said that outside of the school, Lee is not remembered for his contributions to the university.

“We can tell ourselves at W&L, and we often do, that it was quality of university administration that is his legacy. But I think we shouldn’t be surprised when people don’t believe us,” Woods said. “Not many campuses are named after their presidents.”

Gavaler said that while his interactions with The Generals Redoubt were frustrating, he believes there is potential for common ground.

“I sincerely believe The Generals Redoubt… to be good people with good intentions who care deeply about their school and want the best for it,” he said. “That describes me also. And so surely there’s a way for us to come together.”

Rideout said that he welcomes the opportunity to discuss his opinions with students or groups that disagree with The Generals Redoubt.

“We would very much like for that to happen,” he said. “I’d be happy to come up any time and sit and talk with students just about these kinds of things.”

Worsham said that despite differences, WLAC members share the same love for the university as The Generals Redoubt.

“We are interested in positive impact,” she said. “We’re not interested in tearing anything down.”