Dear Washington and Lee University Faculty,

Leah Gose, class of 2015

Washington and Lee University was founded on a moral high ground, raising the standards for collegiate education. Duty, honor, commitment—any mention of our institution would be grossly misrepresented without the addition of such pillars that support the Speaking Tradition, gentlemanly conduct and our esteemed Honor Code.

Even so, to sit upon a Hill, we have had to reconstruct our image on the ruins of our past, standing tall in clear view of all who wait to pass judgment. In many ways critics are right to throw stones at our glass house, unique in its rise to status, based on the legacy of a man perhaps more polarizing than the Civil War itself. Our mistakes and challenges are never resolved without the public watching. We are cautious and slow to recognize issues on campus: black men did not commonly matriculate until the late sixties, women until the mid-eighties and it is challenging to find a review online that does not mention drinking problems or poor gender relations.

In light of our own challenges, we thrive on deep traditions that our troubled, at times, leaders, educators and students left for us. White columns and red brick not only represent and define us, but protect us from the chisel of judgment, waiting to chip away at layers of tradition.

I understand why we are 31 years behind the federal government in recognizing Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I accept that long before my time here, past students and faculty did not yet understand the importance of the Reverend’s message, choosing to publicly denounce his mission. And as each new January passed, the possibility of recognizing the holiday seemed not to be a step forward, but a leap backwards—a public acknowledgment of our initial ignorance and failure to adapt.

The brick wall of confounding feelings I walked into upon learning of the faculty’s decision to suspend classes was utterly unexpected. I immediately felt the fiery glare of prying eyes from the outside, waiting to crumble our carefully constructed cocoon. I heard the misinformed voices of future critics: “They always give in”, “Really, as if this will solve their problems?”, “Washington, Lee, and King? Did April Fools come early?”

Initially, I had never been so vehemently against a decision reached by the university than I was by this one. I worried others would see it as an appeasement to the Committee’s demand. A demand then met only under the pretenses by the faculty that one day off from school would end the race-based issues that quietly plague the campus (it will, in fact, never solve such problems alone).

After much thought and conversation with trusted professors, I came to an emotional realization: Our speculative ignominy is a matter of what our next steps must be, not what could be or what uninvolved outsiders think—it is of how we choose to live our traditions.

Like most altering proclamations, there is no return to the unaffected. Our next steps forward are imminent; therefore we need not be cautious, but deliberate and determined in our progression onward. It is here I make my plea, my request. It took eleven years for the federally observed Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to be declared a national day of service. We cannot proceed down the same delayed path—I beg of the faculty that come your next meeting you all vote to declare our day of suspended classes a campus-wide day of service.

We must move quickly to set an example, not follow mediocre ones. It is frequently our social image—the freshly painted layer of protection from the world— with which we concern ourselves. But even the most beautiful structures will fall standing on a crumbling foundation. It is not our reputation or even our history that support this institution—it is our commitment to upholding a tradition of honor and duty.

We, the people, are the pillars, the mortar, and foundation of this university. By quickly, respectfully, and faithfully honoring the third Monday in January annually as campus-wide day of service, we honor Martin Luther King, Jr’s idea of a beloved community; we are ensuring the enduring advancement of our cherished community. Let us make a new tradition for future students and honor it with the same respect we do our past.

We can do no wrong in memorializing the honorable acts of our leaders, and must extend this commitment continually without discrimination. In ensuring our respectful observance of tradition, no slight of work or challenge in the future can tear down the walls of an institution under which I wholeheartedly built my own moral foundation.