Addressing history without erasing it

A first year’s take on the Washington and Lee Board’s decision to retain the name.

Avani Kashyap

“Are you sure? That place seems like a tourist attraction for racists!”

When I told my high school friends I was considering committing to Washington and Lee University, a school they had never heard of before, this is the response that I got.

Granted, my first month at Washington and Lee has been wonderful: I’ve met great peers and professors and have been introduced to exciting clubs and activities in this beautiful city. But I would be lying if I said I wasn’t scared to step on campus for the first time. I would be lying if I said I didn’t get apprehensive when I told people where I was going to college – because the name was Washington and Lee University.

Robert E. Lee’s connection to Washington and Lee is complicated at best. While he is largely known as the Confederate general that led the pro-slavery, secessionist South in the Civil War, he was also a major benefactor to the university who served as president of the school and implemented the Honor System still in place today. 

The University changed its name for the fifth time from Washington College to Washington and Lee University in 1870. It took more than a century of evolving racial attitudes and perceptions to re-examine it for the sixth time.

As an incoming freshman, I closely followed the name change conversation throughout the summer. Albeit virtually, I read articles about the board’s deliberation and student perspectives, and observed activism efforts by both sides. When the board voted to retain the name, I remember my Instagram being flooded by students voicing  fears and frustrations mirroring my own; fears of hostility, racism and a deeply divided student body.

I cannot stress enough that these fears have not reflected the reality of my experience at Washington and Lee so far, largely because the name seems to have become a taboo subject that is unaddressed and unresolved. But the apprehension that the name can foster, especially for minority students, is a deep deterrent to the University.

In his address to the community on June 4, President Will Dudley stated that “the name ‘Washington and Lee’ does not define us. We define it.”

I wholeheartedly agree. But names have power and significance. Washington and Lee’s application numbers and acceptance rate have stayed relatively constant compared to comparable liberal arts colleges. By not changing the name, the university is falling behind other colleges in terms of attracting a more diverse and competitive demographic.

But how do we address history without erasing it?

I recognize the benefits that Lee has brought to the University. While his contributions to the school are genuine and important, his overall legacy is one that supported racism and inequality. People are not simply good or bad. But Lee’s place on the moral spectrum is not ambiguous; being the general of the side in the Civil War that actively supported racism is a choice that significantly overshadows being a benefactor to a university, and thus, those are the actions that determine his overall legacy.

In fact, the honor system at the University- implemented by Lee himself – seems to be less forgiving than our current consideration of his impact. Washington and Lee’s single sanction policy means that the only disciplinary consequence for committing an honor violation is dismissal from the University. Is leading a war that fought for the continuation of slavery not a big enough mistake?

I’m extremely grateful for the opportunities Washington and Lee has given me thus far and am excited to see how I grow in this community. I hope to someday be full of pride when telling someone where I went to college – but right now, the name is not in congruence with the values that drew me here.