Students, alumni, parents weigh in on university name


Students find pamphlets about Robert E. Lee’s legacy around campus. Photo by Avalon Pernell, ‘23.

Avalon Pernell

Students have noticed growing nervous-ness on campus since the Board of Trustees announced it would make its decision on the Washington and Lee University name in June.

Mike McAlevey, rector of the board, said in an email on May 5 to the university that they “expect to reach and announce our conclusions in June.”

Kamron Spivey, ‘24, an outspoken sup-porter for keeping the university’s name, said students’ anxiety after the email was palpable.

“Those tensions are definitely building up some more because we know there is a dead-line now for the first time,” he said.

Spivey said the administration’s lack of response to the Change the Name protests and Retain the Name signs was disappointing.

“The administration of the university has just tried to completely stay out of everything, which I think makes people upset because most people want, at least if not sup-port, they want acknowledgement that what they’re doing is okay,” he said. “And the university hadn’t done that at all.”

Otice Carder, ‘23, one of the organizers of the first Change the Name protest, agreed.

“Retain the Name” sign on display on the lawn of a local Lexington house. Photo by Avalon Pernell, ‘23.

“It really makes it feel like they just don’t care,” Carder said. “Ignoring the movement created by students a few months ago really highlighted how the administration works—in a way which doesn’t care about the students that they are supposed to be here for.”

As students returned from spring break, supporters of keeping the name as is began a more concerted push on campus. Retain the Name signs popped up around campus and town. There was a banner in Elrod Commons that was promptly taken down, even though Student Affairs granted permission for it.

Several students woke up to anonymously written pamphlets about Robert E. Lee’s presidency on April 29. The pamphlets were circulated to multiple theme houses and every room in the first year residence halls.

Posters have appeared on Student Affairs’ bulletin boards. Various merchandise items, from hats sporting Robert E. Lee’s name to t-shirts with “Retain the Name” emblazoned across the front, have been passed out.

Spivey said he has helped distribute some of the t-shirts and other designs across campus. He said the momentum began to pick up after the second Change the Name protest.

“I think after seeing the hundreds of people that turned out, there needed to be a recognition that those aren’t the only views on campus, because that’s definitely the message that most people were receiving,” he said.

These tensions surrounding the name have also drifted off campus.

Taylor Woods ‘08, is a member of W&L Advocate Coalition (WLAC), an alliance of progressively minded university alumni. He said the organization has tried to raise aware-ness through support of student-led Change the Name protests and letters to President Dudley and the board.

Woods said the last push by supporters of keeping the name did not surprise him.

“We’re no stranger to awareness campaigns, but that said, obviously we view the [Generals Redoubt] content as the death rattle of the old order trying to uphold an untenable status quo,” Woods said.

Judith Conlon, a parent of a 2016 graduate and the head of the Generals Redoubt parent group, said she became interested in fighting for the name after feeling a greater connection to Washington and Lee than her alma mater.

“People forget that the parents also have a vested interest in their children’s education and the college and the college community,” Conlon said.

She said seeing her son’s “wonderful experience” at the university made her fearful of changes to the name and values of the school. Conlon wrote a letter to the Board of Trustees which contained the signatures of 200 parents who were all concerned about the potential name change.

Conlon said many parents expressed interest in signing the letter after feeling that their students were unable to express their first amendment rights on campus without backlash.

“They’re concerned that there’s not that free flow of discussion, especially in a civilized manner where all viewpoints are al-lowed to be presented,” she said. “And when your children aren’t allowed to speak out or afraid to speak out, that’s a real concern for parents.”

Neely Young, ‘66, the vice president and editor of the Generals Redoubt, shares those feelings.

“In effect, what has happened is free speech has been provided for people that want to change the name, but it has not been provided to those who want to retain the name,” he said.

Still, Young said he recognized that Washington and Lee faces new challenges in the 21st century.

“We want a diverse and inclusive culture at Washington and Lee,” he said. “We just don’t think changing the name or getting rid of the honor system or doing away with civility is the way to get there,” Young said.

But Woods said that changing the name could be the first step to making the school more “open and welcome” to students of different races and socio-economic back-grounds.

“We view the name change as a starter, a baseline, a signifier, but we don’t view it as the end-all-be-all,” Woods said. “We want to change the climate and culture on campus…We’re hoping for the best decision, but hoping it comes with other signs that the administration gets where students of marginalized backgrounds want to take it.”

Both alumni groups expressed plans to continue their work regardless of the decision the board makes in June.