Board of Trustees announces committee to review name after efforts by faculty, student government

Grace Mamon

Washington and Lee’s Board of Trustees announced the creation of a board committee to review the school’s Confederate ties, including its name, in an email Tuesday.

This announcement comes after support from many campus groups, including the Executive Committee and a resounding majority of the faculty, to drop Robert E. Lee from the university’s name.

“The Board recognizes the dissonance between our namesakes’ connections to slavery and their significant contributions to the university,” the email read. “And we are committed to a deep and detailed review of our symbols and our name with the intention of securing the brightest possible future for this institution.”

In the past, the board has expressed its wishes to retain Lee’s presence both in the name of the university and on campus. But amid nationwide calls for the removal of Confederate symbols following the killing of George Floyd, the push for a name change is stronger than ever.

The board committee, composed of 10 current trustees, will collect input from all W&L constituencies, gather and analyze data and even consult experts, according to the email. There is no timetable for this work, but the email said it will be a primary focus for the board.

“We are aware that many of you think it should be easy to make a quick decision, but that is not the case,” the board said in the email. “Reviewing the name of a distinguished and historic institution is a task not to be taken lightly. At the same time, we are steadfast in our commitment to building and sustaining a more diverse and inclusive community.”

The email came almost two weeks after the executive committee of the student body, met with the board and expressed its  support for  a name change June 29.

This is the first time the 2020-2021 committee has formally discussed renaming, said EC President, Chase Calhoun, ’21. But he said committee members have been thinking through these issues for a long time.

“I believe that there are many institutional and systemic changes that need to take place on our campus to make it a comfortable learning environment for students of all backgrounds,” Calhoun said. “And we as an institution may struggle to make those changes when students still feel uncomfortable with our associations with Lee.”

The board has also been listening intently in the past few months, according to their email, and recognizes that “the nation’s founders, like all human beings, were flawed” and that “Confederate symbols and leaders, perhaps most notably Robert E. Lee, are painful reminders of a war fought to uphold slavery.”

The Executive Committee’s statement to the Board of Trustees was sent in an email to the student body on the afternoon of June 29, after a morning meeting with the board and a closed executive session the night before. The closed session resulted in a majority vote for a name change, Calhoun said.

“We, as representatives of the Student Body, cannot ignore these students who are affected most personally on a daily basis by the glorification of Robert E. Lee at Washington and Lee University,” the EC’s statement said.

Faculty echoed this sentiment, passing a motion via virtual meeting on Monday to remove Lee from the university name. Over 260 faculty members attended the meeting and voted 188 to 51 in favor of the motion, according to Alison Bell, who leads the Faculty Affairs Committee.

Calhoun said the board of trustees was “extremely attentive” to the EC’s statements during their meeting.

Many members of the Washington and Lee community consider this discussion long overdue and have expressed disappointment in the school’s response to past efforts. Others believe renaming would damage the school’s name recognition and relationship with alumni, who provide an abundance of funding and networking opportunities.

President William Dudley emphasized a commitment to demanding changes to systems that perpetuate racial violence and injustice in an email June 23, listing several “next steps” that the university will take, but did not address renaming.

“I have heard from many of you in recent weeks,” the email said. “Some of you have expressed the conflict you feel between your love of W&L and your concern about our prominent association with Robert E. Lee, whose presidency transformed the university, but who also led the Confederate army in defending slavery and has come to symbolize the defense of racial oppression that we unequivocally reject.”

Some of these next steps include establishing a George Floyd Endowment for programming in W&L’s Office of Inclusion and Engagement – which has already raised over $100,000 – and establishing Juneteenth as a university holiday.

The university also plans to expand the number of students enrolled through QuestBridge, a nonprofit that pairs high-achieving low-income students with top colleges and universities, by 33% and appoint an admissions counsellor focused on recruiting underrepresented minorities.

The statement from the Executive Committee also reinforced their support of a petition that began in the law school in November to allow students the option to receive their diploma without the portraits of the university’s namesakes.

“It is also our hope and suggestion that in the near future, this is a choice that students will not have to make, if our aforementioned suggestion that the university’s name is changed is granted,” the statement from the EC said.

The petition, which had 290 signatories at the time of submission, was rejected by the board in February. Dudley’s email in June announced that the board would reconsider their rejection.

“I am listening carefully, and I will continue to do so,” Dudley wrote in the email. “The Board of Trustees is listening, too.”

Calhoun also emphasized the EC’s efforts to listen, especially to those who are affected personally and daily by the presence of Lee on campus.

“For me, it comes down to people or traditions,” Calhoun said. “Is it more important that we maintain our traditions and keep our name or is it more important that we create an inclusive, comfortable experience for everyone on campus?”