Confusion over diploma design highlights W&L’s turmoil with racial justice

The Board of Trustees quietly removed portraits of the university namesakes in 2022 as a response to ‘Change the Name’ protests


A scene of the colonnade now stands in place of the two portraits. Photo courtesy of W&L University Store website

Bri Hatch, Editor-in-Chief

Controversy surrounding Washington and Lee’s namesakes has persisted on the university’s campus for years. But amid years-long calls for a name change, a lesser-known battle has persisted: to remove the namesakes’ portraits on graduation diplomas. 

Graduates in 2022 were the first to receive an updated diploma design, which replaced the traditional portraits of George Washington and Robert E. Lee with a silhouette of the colonnade. But many students did not know about the change until the diploma was in their hands. 

“I could probably assume that like 85 percent of my grade had no idea,” Mansi Tripathi, ’22, said. 

Many current seniors, months away from their 2023 graduation date, are also unaware of the updated design. 

Tanajia Moye-Green, ’23, said she did not know the diploma design had been changed. But she thinks the Board of Trustees did not broadcast the decision “because they didn’t want to make the alumni mad.” 

“They were like, ‘We will do this one thing for you. We may not do any of the other things you asked for, but we’ll do this smaller thing. And we won’t tell anyone about it,’” Moye-Green said. 

Kit Lombard, ’23, noticed the diploma update last year when the university was selling diploma frames in Elrod Commons. “But if it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t have known,” he said. 

Rose Hein, ’22, is a postbaccalaureate fellow for the DeLaney Center studying southern race relations, with one area of focus on the outcomes of the “Change the Name” protests. Hein said the diploma change went largely unnoticed because it was overshadowed by the decision to not change the university’s name. 

“Big disappointments can make everything seem really, really small. So you can forget that anything happened at all,” Hein said. 

Hein has spent the past year interviewing 18 students who were closely tied to the spring 2021 protests. 

“Essentially, what I found is that students are not actually interested in the history of George Washington and Robert E. Lee,” she said. “What they’re interested in is what having those two names on the university now means for their life as a student on this campus.” 

Hein said these students cited evidence of the present impact of Robert E. Lee’s legacy on campus, including a 2018 pamphlet campaign from a North Carolina KKK chapter, advocating to “K-K-Keep the Name,” and the continued celebration of Lee-Jackson Day

A portion of a diploma, which reads Washington and Lee University Lexington, Virginia and features oval portraits of George Washington and Robert E. Lee on the left and right sides.
The original diploma design featured portraits of George Washington and Robert E. Lee. Photo courtesy of 2019 law student petition

“A lot of students view Washington and Lee’s names as an invitation to these groups,” Hein said. “We cannot just isolate those individuals as being in the past, because their presence has present implications.” 

Calls for the diploma design change began with a petition from Washington and Lee law students in 2019 that was rejected by the Board of Trustees in 2020. But in response to the ‘Change the Name’ protests in spring 2021, the board promised to update the design after deciding to not rename the university. 

The Phi dug into the recent history of widespread debate over the university’s name, Robert. E Lee’s legacy, and the diploma design to chronicle a more full timeline of these intersecting issues. 

The diploma controversy history 

In November 2019, several student groups at Washington and Lee’s law school started a petition to allow undergraduate and law students to opt-out of the portrait design on their diplomas after fallout from the 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville.

“The goal of establishing this option is to create a diploma that alumni are proud to prominently display in their homes and places of work,” the petition reads. 

Over 280 students, alumni and faculty had signed the petition by January 2020, the Phi reported. And Rev. Rob W. Lee IV, a descendant of Robert E. Lee, expressed his support for the petition in a December 2019 letter.

The Executive Committee (EC) president presented the petition to the Board of Trustees in February 2020, the Phi reported. But the board rejected it. 

“W&L is a single community, and all graduates receive the same diploma,” the board wrote in a letter on Feb. 18, 2020. “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.”

‘Change the Name’ reignites calls for reform at W&L

In summer 2020, police killings of Black Americans like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor reignited fights for racial justice. The Black Lives Matter protests that followed accumulated in one of the largest movements in U.S. history, the New York Times reported

At Washington and Lee, these nationwide protests became local — sparking renewed demands for the university to be renamed. On July 7, 2020, the Board of Trustees sent an email to the student body addressing calls for change. 

“We have received numerous requests from students, faculty and alumni calling for changes in the university, including re-naming the institution itself and altering the design of its diploma,” the email said. “And we have received equally urgent communications emphasizing that change in support of racial justice should not require any change to the university’s name or its diploma.”

The board formed a committee to review these issues. In August 2020, the board said in an email that the decision could take up to six months. A month later, the committee sent a survey to the university community to “gather input on the university’s name, symbols, and other factors related to diversity and inclusion at W&L.”

Over 14,000 students, faculty and alumni had responded to the survey, the board reported in an October 2020 email. But by January 2021, the board still had not decided on the name. Instead, students received an email asking for more time

“We originally estimated that this might take six months or more,” the email said. “However, given the volume of information to consider and the magnitude of the decisions before us, the consensus of the trustees is that we need more time.”

On March 23, 2021, students and faculty staged a walk-out to protest the lack of response, the Phi reported

“We want [the Board of Trustees] to realize that pushing it off is not going to make us forget, even if they try to push it off to the summer when no one is on campus,” one event organizer said. 

Students left their classes and marched to the colonnade with signs, shirts and masks boasting the phrase, “Change the Name.” Six students spoke in front of the University Chapel next to a banner reading, “Who built this colonnade.”

“We are named after two slave owners; those people have earned their places in our history books but not on the name of our school,” one law student told the Phi. 

On June 4, 2021, the Board of Trustees announced that Washington and Lee’s name would remain intact.

“The name we have had for 151 years, and upon which our reputation is built, provides strength and resources critical to advancing our mission and ensuring that we can do good work long into the future,” the board said. 

Buried in the board’s statement was a promise to adopt a new diploma design without portraits. But the last university-wide mention of this initiative appeared in an August 2021 email, stating that the board was “considering options for the new design of the university diploma, which we expect to finalize in October.”

‘You can’t help but feel that presence’

Tripathi, the 2022 graduate, organized the ‘Change the Name’ walkout in March 2021. The turnout gave her some hope for change. But not much has come since, she said. 

Issue number one is that we’re still called Washington and Lee University,” Tripathi said. 

And the changes that did happen, like renaming Lee Chapel to University Chapel, don’t amount to much, she added.

“Maybe some first years are coming in being like, ‘Oh, it’s University Chapel.’ They don’t know it was Lee Chapel,” Tripathi said. “But they know that Robert E. Lee is in there, like he’s literally in there. And you can’t help but feel that presence.”

Hein, who is researching the ‘Change the Name’ outcomes, thinks recording student perspectives about the protests is an important feat in itself. 

“I want to make sure that someone has talked to the people who were pushing forward those protests, that the information is preserved,” Hein said. “Ultimately, the ‘Change the Name’ protests were about much, much more than the name of the university. They were about what was viewed as a much broader sense of failure from the university as a whole in the terms of racial equity.”

Hein does not make recommendations to the university with her research. But she does know that these conversations and debates will continue. 

“And I’m hoping that having some preservation of information about what’s happened in the past, and what sorts of things students were concerned about in the past, can make that ramp a little bit easier for students in the future,” she said.