Survey finds split in Washington and Lee community over Confederate flag decision

Many alumni and students are divided about Washington and Lee University’s decision last week to remove Confederate battle flags from a prominent location in its Lee Chapel, according to a survey published by a campus magazine.

But the Spectator’s survey also found wide support for how university President Kenneth P. Ruscio responded to several demands made in April by a group of African American law students who said they had experienced “alienation and discomfort” at the school named for President George Washington and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

The law students, known as the Committee, had sought the removal of all Confederate flags from university property, including those located within the Lee Chapel; full recognition of the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday on the undergraduate campus in Lexington, Va.; a ban on any neo-Confederate marching on campus with Confederate flags on Lee-Jackson day; an official apology for the university’s participation in slavery; and a denunciation of Lee’s participation in slavery.

One of Ruscio’s responses on Tuesday was to remove replicas of certain regimental Confederate battle flags from the main floor of the chapel and arrange for one or more of the original flags to be displayed on a rotating basis in a museum in a lower level of the building. Ruscio also said he would urge faculty to consider whether to cancel undergraduate classes on MLK Day, although he would recommend against doing so.

Ruscio acknowledged that the school’s ownership of slaves before the Civil War “was a regrettable chapter of our history.” He asserted that outside groups may not “march” on campus or use the campus as “a platform for its own displays or statements.” But he said he took pride in Lee’s accomplishments as a president of the college after the war, and he described Lee as “an imperfect individual living in imperfect times.” Ruscio made no denunciation of Lee’s connection with slavery.

The Spectator, which describes itself as a magazine of student thought and opinion, said it queried nearly 2,200 alumni and all of the school’s undergraduates except for incoming freshmen. It received responses from 433 alumni and 433 students.

There are about 2,200 students at the private liberal arts university.

There was no indication that the survey used scientific polling methods. However, the results offered at least a glimpse of reaction within the university community to Ruscio’s response to the law students.

Alumni and students were split nearly 50-50 on whether they agreed with Ruscio’s decision on the flags. Most respondents — about 85 percent of students and 79 percent of alumni — said they believed “public pressure” caused him to make the decision.

But overall, most also concluded that the president handled the demands appropriately. That was the view of 79 percent of students and 57 percent of alumni who responded.

Ruscio, asked about the survey findings, said in an e-mail Monday afternoon: the “response I have had directly from alumni and students has been extensive and overwhelmingly positive, supportive, thoughtful and understanding of the complexity of the issues being discussed and the university’s position. I wish I could show you my in-box.”

On NPR’s “All Things Considered” radio show, Ruscio was asked Thursday whether there is a “broader problem of alienation and how black students are integrated into the student body” of the university.

He replied: “That is an issue that we try to address, we try to understand. I’d - you know, I will say that in my conversations with black students, you know, there are variations, of course, in how the experiences of black students have gone. And there are many, many who have told me that their experience here has been everything they hoped it would be.”

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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