Washington and Lee University diplomas will keep namesake portraits

The Board of Trustees rejected the petition started by law students


The current Washington and Lee University diploma, for both law and undergraduate students, displays portraits of George Washington and Robert E. Lee. [Image from online petition]

Jin Ni

Washington and Lee University will not offer an option for graduates who don’t want portraits of George Washington and Robert E. Lee on their diplomas.

The response comes after law students started a petition in November for the university to offer graduates a diploma option without the namesakes’ portraits.

The original petition was signed by 290 law and undergraduate students, alumni and faculty. One of the petition’s supporters, Rev. Rob W. Lee IV, is a descendant of Robert E. Lee and who spoke at the Washington and Lee University School of Law in March 2019.  

[Read the original petition here]

After Executive Committee President Will Bolton, ‘20, presented the petition to the board, the Executive Committee emailed its the board’s response to the student body on Wednesday, Feb. 19.

On the day the Board’s response was released, Rev. Rob W. Lee IV tweeted: “The trustees and president of Washington and Lee feel that if you serve as president of their institution, raise funds and bolster enrollment (third paragraph) they will look over your past enslavement of black people and treason against these United States. Do better W&L.”

[Read the full letter here]

Since the Board of Trustees oversees the granting of degrees, board members made their decision during a meeting in Lexington the weekend of February 14-16.

“W&L is a single community, and all graduates receive the same diploma,” the letter reads. “While the Board’s decision regarding our diploma design is final, the exploration of our history is ongoing, and we encourage everyone at Washington and Lee to engage with this important educational work.”

Chandler Gray, ‘21L, an organizer of the petition, said in an email that she was disappointed by the decision.

“We are frustrated with [the Board’s] failure to address any of the issues we raised,” Gray said. 

Gray said she, along with fellow organizers Aaron Hardy, ‘21L, and Adenike Miles-Sorinmade, ‘21L, sent a 33-page packet of materials to the board: the petition, law school testimonials, and news coverage of the petition. No law students were allowed to attend the meeting with the board. 

Gray said she believes the board’s response made it clear they did not read any of it.

“The Board’s response never addresses the potential impact of the portraits on graduates’ professional communities and the fact that many alumni do not display their diplomas because of the portraits,” Gray said. “The lack of thoughtful engagement with the issue or, really, any substantive explanation of why the Board is unwilling to grant the diploma option that incorporates any of the arguments raised in the 33 pages of materials we provided to them is frustrating.”  

The board’s letter said that the images on the diploma are consistent with the portraits of Washington and Lee recently displayed in Lee Chapel.

“It includes images of George Washington and Robert E. Lee portrayed in the context of their respective associations with the university — Washington as President of the United States, whose gift saved the institution from financial ruin, and Lee as President of Washington College, who bolstered enrollment, raised funds, and added the law school, among other significant academic innovations,” the letter reads. 

Gray said she sees the 2018 changes to make Washington and Lee a more inclusive university as a step in the right direction. But she doesn’t think that’s enough.

The work of making our community a better, more thoughtful, and more inclusive place is never over,” she said. “So for the Board to suggest that its actions in 2018 absolve it of any further discussions or changes is both misguided and disappointing.”

Gray said she hopes the board will be willing to engage in a good faith discussion with law school representatives in the future. As for now, she said, the organizers plan to communicate their feelings with Bolton, who will pass their message on to Washington and Lee University President Will Dudley. 

“Law students will continue to raise this issue at appropriate meetings with the university,” Gray said. “I personally will not display my diploma until I am given an option to remove the portraits.”