Board of trustees still considering whether to change school’s name

A final decision could take over six months


Grace Mamon

Lee Chapel, a central landmark on campus, will be renamed University Chapel. Photo by Grace Mamon, ’22.

Grace Mamon and Elizabeth Bell

Washington and Lee University’s Board of Trustees has been reexamining the school’s ties to the Confederacy after faculty, students and alumni called for a name change this summer.

 A final decision on whether the school’s name will be changed could take more than six months, said an email from Rector Mike McAlevey, ‘86. 

 “Given the scope of this assignment and the unpredictable impact of COVID-19, it would be unwise to commit to an exact timeline,” said the email sent to the Washington and Lee community on Aug. 21. “Even prioritizing these issues, I expect it may take six months or more before the process is complete. We will keep you updated on our progress.”

 The board of trustees formed a special committee in July to review these issues. The committee is made up of 10 trustees and led by co-chairs Craig Owens, ’76, and William Toles, ’92, ’95L. President Will  Dudley is an ex-offcio member of the committee. There are three women and three people of color serving on the committee, according to the Board of Trustees’ website.

 “The committee will consider questions raised by recent petitions to the board from university students, alumni and faculty, including proposals to change the university’s name and the form of its diplomas,” said the board’s website. “The committee may consider and address other matters that are necessary and directly related to the fulfillment of its purpose.”

 The  announcement of the committee came 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,” said an email sent to the Washington and Lee community on July 7. “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 in the name of the university, and in the images on graduates’ diplomas. 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.

 “We are aware that many of you think it should be easy to make a quick decision, but that is not the case,” said the board’s email on July 7. “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 board has received thousands of emails both supporting and opposing changing the school’s name. 

 “Everyone will be invited to share their thoughts as part of the board’s process, which will include a survey of our entire community. I will share more specific information on the board’s plans for this outreach in September,” said McAlevey’s email.

 Earlier this summer, the executive committee met with the board and expressed its support for a name change. 

 That was the first time the 2020-2021 committee 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 its July 7 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.

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

 Faculty echoed this sentiment, passing a motion on July 6 to remove Lee from the university name. Over 260 faculty members attended the virtual meeting and voted 188 to 51 in favor of the motion, according to Alison Bell, who leads the Faculty Affairs Committee.

 The three permanent Black faculty members at Washington and Lee’s law school called for the removal of both Washington’s and Lee’s names from the school’s name, according to a letter sent to Dudley.

“It is worth exploring why the faculty has decided to make a collective statement on Lee and why the faculty has not included a demand to drop Washington in their petition,” according to the letter written by Brandon Hasbrouck, an alum and associate professor of law. “It is no longer acceptable, profitable or convenient to be associated with Lee but it is for Washington.”

An amendment was proposed to include the removal of Washington’s name, but that motion failed.

Formal conversations among faculty members about the name change began at a virtual meeting on June 24.

“We feel like we’re going to end up on the wrong side of this as an institution and that it will harm us,” said Jim Casey, ‘91, a professor of economics who organized the initial meeting. “Everyone who was in that conversation feels that the best thing for our institution is to drop our affiliation with Lee.”

After violence in Charlottesville three years ago, Casey said there were conversations about renaming the university. 

“It’s different in 2020 than it was in 2017 and we’re sort of back at the table with this particular issue. It was very clear to me in this conversation that faculty members, since the murder of George Floyd, have been thinking very, very seriously about a lot of these issues,” Casey said.

Many alumni and students  have joined a group advocating for change, called Not Unmindful.

In a letter sent to the board of trustees on Aug. 12, Not Unmindful called for the university to remove Lee from its name, implement the diversity initiatives in the strategic plan, improve campus climate and affirm its commitment to diversity and inclusion. 

“Any attempts to create a ‘welcoming, friendly, and mutually supportive community’ are hampered by our association with Lee as a namesake. Lee is no longer an asset to the brand of the University. In fact, his name is an obstacle to our success,” said the group’s letter. “Lee does not accurately reflect the values and 21st century initiatives of the University. Lee is a symbol of white supremacy on par with the Southern Cross Confederate battle flag. As such, his name hinders the recruitment of the best students, faculty, and staff.”

A separate alumni group, called Generals Redoubt, opposes the name change.

The group was formed in 2018 in response to a commission that examined the school’s institutional history. The commission suggested many changes, including renaming some campus buildings, but stopped short of recommending renaming the school.

“The Generals Redoubt unequivocally opposes the changing of the name… It believes a recent resolution by tenured faculty calling for the removal of Robert E. Lee’s name from that of the university poses a serious challenge of financial and reputational sustainability,” the group’s treasurer, Elizabeth Barry Brown, said in an email to students and alumni on June 27.

Many members of the Washington and Lee community consider this discussion about the school’s name 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 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 Juneteenth as a university holiday and creating a George Floyd Endowment for programming in W&L’s Office of Inclusion and Engagement. 

 At the time of Dudley’s email, trustees Dana J. Bolden ‘89 and William Toles ‘92 ‘95L and alumni William Hill ‘74 ‘77L, Robert Grey ‘76L and William Thornton ‘88  had raised over $100,000, “in hopes of inspiring other Black alumni to support this work.”

 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 its 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.” 

The full board will review the committee’s findings and determine what steps should be taken, “by balancing a mix of considerations including the views of our community.”