A year ago, violence erupted in Charlottesville amid rallies to support a Confederate monument, with clashes between white nationalists and counterprotesters. Not far away, Washington and Lee University faced its own stark questions. How central is the university’s history to its identity? Could Washington and Lee honor the past without alienating some students and faculty members? And if the university moved further to distance itself from its Confederate heritage, would that risk turning the school into another flash point?
In the days after the Charlottesville conflict, the new president of the private university in Lexington, Va., William Dudley, convened a group and asked it “to lead us in an examination of how our history — and the ways that we teach, discuss, and represent it — shapes our community."
As this school year began, Dudley announced the changes that would — and those that would not — take place on this storied campus, where traditions carry tremendous weight: The university will keep its name, Lee Chapel will remain an integral part of campus, and the school will find ways to tell its history more fully.
The school has begun a national search for a director of institutional history, a historian who will lead the design, construction and operation of a museum and oversee all of the school's historical sites. The museum will be dedicated to the university's many connections to American history. Dudley envisaged close collaborations with students and faculty members to create interactive exhibits, such as a campus walk, that would delve into lesser-known parts of the institution's history — including the role of slavery.
The challenge for Washington and Lee was different from what other colleges confronted as they considered the fate of Confederate relics. Duke University removed a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee last year after it was vandalized. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, protesters recently toppled a monument to alumni who fought for the Confederacy. At Washington and Lee, named for two generals who helped the school endure and thrive, “they aren't just honorifics,” the school's president said. Both men played important, direct roles. And Lee is buried on the grounds.
Every school needs to find a balance between honoring the best of its history while acknowledging its complexities, said Kirt von Daacke, assistant dean and professor at the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia and co-chair of commissions there on slavery and the university in the age of segregation.
The effort at Washington and Lee sparked intense interest, from those urging the school to maintain traditions and from those warning that it risked becoming a relic itself if it were so steeped in Confederate memory. Dudley received hundreds of letters and emails after the Commission on Institutional History and Community issued its report.
His plans stopped short of some of the commission's recommendations, such as considering renaming three buildings honoring Lee and holding campuswide events in a space other than Lee Chapel. The commission also suggested the university ensure that student orientation into the cherished Honor System no longer be held in Lee Chapel. Dudley announced that student leaders would continue to determine the location for that orientation.
"One of the myths surrounding the Honor System is that Robert E. Lee created the system during his tenure as president” of the university, the commission wrote. “The W&L community is built on civility, honor and integrity, yet, the system promoting these ideals also promotes an inaccurate myth.” Some students told the commission the orientation for the Honor System made them uncomfortable because they felt they were required to admire Lee, rather than viewing him as a complicated historical figure.
The front campus of Washington and Lee, which includes Lee Chapel and the university's stately Colonnade, is a National Historic Landmark, a place that draws 30,000 to 40,000 people a year, and it's important to preserve the historical value and educational opportunities that presents, Dudley said. He said it's also important to ensure that the chapel, long used as an assembly space for the university, is a place where all members of the community can feel welcome “and not feel like participating in university events involves venerating the Confederacy."
The chapel may seem frozen in time, but it has evolved, Dudley wrote in a message to the campus community.
"Lee conceived and built the chapel as a plain and simple space in which the college community could gather for religious services and academic functions,” he wrote. “He never imagined the chapel would become his family's final resting place, much less that it could be perceived as a monument to the Confederacy. Lee almost certainly would have opposed both of these developments.
"His personal modesty would have generated strong resistance to making himself the focal point of the chapel," Dudley wrote. "And he expressly argued against the creation of Civil War memorials, rightly believing they would perpetuate division and impede national reconciliation and prosperity."
The school will use the chapel as a gathering place but will find a means of making clear that the family crypt and the recumbent statue of Lee are separate spaces, functionally not connected with the university assembly space in the auditorium. Dudley said figuring that out will be part of the charge for the new director of institutional history.
Dudley also spoke of another way the university has evolved: Diversifying its student body and faculty is a priority, ensuring more people of color and students from low-income families join Washington and Lee and feel comfortable on campus.
The president of the student government did not respond to a request for comment.
Corbet Bryant, a 1968 graduate who has watched the examination closely this past year, said in an email he was encouraged that the trustees seem willing to rein in "many of the most egregious excesses of the Commission on Institutional History and Community. I think we must reserve judgment on the as-yet-unidentified Director of Institutional History and the to-be-built museum which the Director will oversee along with numerous other projects. It will be several years before this fully plays out.”