Law students consider withdrawing from Executive Committee after denial of diploma petition

Some law students feel their interests haven’t been adequately represented by student government


A view of the Washington and Lee University School of Law. Photo by Elizabeth Bell.

Jin Ni

Washington and Lee University’s decision to keep the portraits of its namesakes on its diploma stirred up conversation in the law school about withdrawing from the Executive Committee.

“The faces of Washington and Lee are part of [the school’s] brand. But the school’s place in that brand has made students of color feel uncomfortable,” Evan Reid, ‘21L, said in a phone interview. “When [the Board of Trustees] didn’t make the decision to give us an option to remove the likenesses of Washington and Lee, it seemed that they were protecting their brand rather than protecting us.”

The petition, started in November 2019 in the law school, called for the University to offer students the choice to receive a diploma without the portraits of George Washington and Robert E. Lee.

At the time of submission, the petition had more than 290 signatories, including Executive Committee representative Dan Kator, ‘21L, and the support of Robert W. Lee IV, a descendant of Robert E. Lee. The petition was sent to the university’s Board of Trustees in early February. The board, which oversees the granting of degrees, rejected the petitioned changes in a meeting on campus during the weekend of Feb. 14 through 16, 2020.

The Executive Committee emailed the response from the Board of Trustees to the student body on February 19.

“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.”

In an EC business meeting on March 10, law school students showed up to air out their frustrations over the response to the petition.

“The position [the school] takes is that they will only look at Lee in the context of his presidency at Washington and Lee, but the adoption of that position is slightly insane and anti-intellectual,” said Joe Oschrin, ‘20L, in a phone interview.

Oschrin also pointed out several plaques and icons on campus that he thinks run counter to the school’s position of representing Lee as former university president, not a Confederate general. He noted the Traveller plaque and similar signages around campus (which was presented to the school by the organization United Daughters of the Confederacy) and similar Lee or Traveller memorabilia that represent Lee as a general being sold at the university store.

“It is impossible and illogical to separate Lee the president and Lee the general. He wouldn’t even have been president [of the university] had he not been the leader of the Confederates. He didn’t arise fully formed at the gates of [W&L] and say, ‘Oh, I heard you’re hiring!’,” Oschrin said. “W&L is always going to have that tension with trying to forget the bad things and emphasize the good things, but I don’t really think that’s a way to gain knowledge and runs counter to the mission of any university, especially one that’s as highly regarded as W&L.”

While the Board of Trustees’ decision on the diplomas is final, the law students’ frustrations did not end at just the response.

“Our main frustration was that we felt like the EC and the administration didn’t advocate to let us come to the Trustee meeting to present the petition,” said Chandler Gray, ‘21L, one of the organizers of the petition.

According to Gray, former Executive Committee President Will Bolton, ‘20, had told petition organizers that the Student Bar Association president, Roy Abernathy, would be able to attend the board’s meeting and advocate on behalf of law students. But the night before the meeting, Gray said, law students found out that the board didn’t want to meet with the law students at all.

“We’re law students, so we’re taught all this stuff about due process,” Reid said. “But with this whole thing, we didn’t see any of that. It seemed unfair.”

In the end, the decision was made behind closed doors with the Board of Trustees, a few university administrators, and Bolton, who said he had tried to present both sides of the issue when he was in the meeting.

“There is a significant difference between being an undergraduate student and a law student at W&L and therefore… an undergraduate student, even if it’s the EC president, isn’t able to properly represent law students interests in a setting such as the Trustees meeting,” Gray said. “If we’d been able to have our student body representative attend the meeting, then we would have felt that our interests as law students were adequately represented.”

The incident with the petition is only the latest in a history of a divide between the law school and the undergraduate college.

While the main undergraduate campus and the law school are only separated by a ravine and connected by the footbridge, talks of a social and political divide between undergraduate and law students isn’t new. The Executive Committee presidency, which is a role meant to represent all students on campus, has historically been usually occupied by an undergraduate student.

“The students on the EC are predominantly young and white, and the petition kind of illuminated the split between the undergraduate side and the law school,” Reid said.

He pointed out that nearly all the law students had signed the petition, and felt strongly about it, while there didn’t seem to be such an enthusiastic response from undergraduate students. He acknowledged that law students were at different places in their lives, from getting ready to graduate into a job force and having different day-to-day experiences and social interactions.

“I view this as a kangaroo court, 19 and 20-year-olds putting on their cub scout uniforms,” said Jack Andrade, ‘21L, at the March 10 meeting, according to EC meeting notes. “This institution is meant to be a representation of the student body. But I don’t know how much is really representing the law school student body, to be quite honest. It’s this sort of behavior where you act like you are doing a good job but then when something comes along, you don’t get in the brass tacks and really represent people.”

Law students at the meeting also expressed that they might want to start a second petition and withdraw from the Executive Committee altogether to form their own self-governance.

“Some of the frustration is that we keep doing these procedural things, going through the right hoops to do this and that and it ultimately feels like we keep running into a brick wall,” Reid said in the meeting, according to EC meeting notes.

Reid said in a phone interview that while talks of withdrawal exist, nothing concrete has been established. “It was the first time we have expressed it in a formal setting. It was more a way of venting how we felt,” Reid said in the interview. “But while we have not formally pursued the option, it’s something that could be done.”

Bolton acknowledged the frustration expressed by the law students and recommended at the time that they bring up their concerns with the Constitutional Review Committee.

“I would also say you didn’t get nothing,” Bolton said during the March 10 meeting, according to EC meeting notes. “You got a 37-page petition to the Board of Trustees and they considered it for a long time. Dean Hellwig presented for a long time in executive session to them, and that is usually reserved for just Board members. [The Board of Trustees] is working on issues around inclusion and engagement and making positive changes is certainly on their mind.”

Bolton also noted that the EC was working on ways to better represent law students and the issues they raised through the SBA.

“But there is a general sense of displacement,” Oschrin said. “The response to the petition is [not] the sole reason for this, but for anyone who feels like Robert E. Lee is a terrible person, for a variety of reasons, the school response was not unprofessional, but inadequate. The petition was not even asking for a name change.”

Some law school students say the discussion will continue past the business meeting. The petition was only the beginning, and students who graduated virtually on May 8 said they hope that others will take up the mantle.