The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Students and faculty ask Washington and Lee to change its name

Student leaders at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., have called for the school to change its name. (Stephanie Gross for The Washington Post)

Student leaders at Washington and Lee University have asked that the name of the school be changed, that the glorification of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on the campus end and that those steps be followed by lasting institutional change.

In separate efforts, a majority of faculty members has signed on to a petition calling for changing the name, according to a professor helping to lead the effort, which will be presented to university leaders Monday. The school’s president has called for a special meeting of the faculty Monday to consider a motion changing the name.

And 2,000 alumni have joined a group calling for the name to change, according to a leader of a coalition formed on social media.

The mounting pressure on the board comes at a time when monuments are falling across the country amid protests over police brutality and urgent examinations of racism, culture and the way history is remembered.

The private college in Virginia, named in honor of two of its early benefactors, George Washington and Lee, has particularly deep and complex ties to the Confederacy. Lee’s tomb, a place of pilgrimage for some who venerate that cause, is on the campus.

Over the years, school officials have taken steps to change the way Lee’s contributions are remembered, such as emphasizing his role as an educator and removing Confederate flags. After violence in Charlottesville was ignited by the dispute over a monument to Lee, the university’s president called for a thorough examination of the institution’s history. That commission recommended numerous changes, including the way that history would be taught and shared, but did not call for the school’s name to be changed.

Washington and Lee won’t change its name. But a year after Charlottesville, the school is not unchanged.

Traditionally the school’s alumni have been staunch advocates of maintaining the school’s name and many of its traditions.

But in recent weeks, after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, national protests over racial injustice and police brutality, and the removal of Confederate monuments even in Richmond, which was the Confederate capital, a growing number of alumni have changed their minds, become more vocal, or both.

“For the first time ever, it seems like this effort has momentum,” said Trent Merchant, who graduated in the class of 1992 and has helped lead an effort by alumni to write letters to university leaders advocating for a change. “We want to remove an obstacle that is standing in their way,” he said.

University leaders have prioritized issues such as equity and inclusion, he said, “but because of the university’s history the board is sometimes walking in quicksand.”

“In many ways, Lee is the foundation of a culture built on myths, lies and legends that has been actively propagated by the university and its community for 150 years,” Merchant said. “If we remove that foundation, it at last creates an opportunity for that university community to work together to create a culture that speaks more accurately to the university’s values and current initiatives.”

‘We still live in its long shadows’: Washington and Lee confronts its history

Thomas Rideout, the president of a group dedicated to preserving the school’s history and values, the Generals Redoubt, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday. Rideout said last month that eliminating racism is important but that changing the name of the university would not accomplish that goal. He said the school’s president and rector had reaffirmed to him in May the school’s name would not change.

The group has been supported by hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations since its inception in late 2019, according to its website.

Faculty members have been circulating a petition calling for the name to be changed for several days and more than 200 have signed on, said James Casey, a professor of economics and a 1991 graduate of the university.

“There’s an assumption that the status quo is neutral and we are asking for some sort of radical change,” Casey said, but he disagrees. “Keeping Lee is just as much of a statement of values as dropping Lee. Keeping the name, to me, is a radical decision.”

The faculty affairs committee asked the school’s president to call a meeting to consider this motion: “The Faculty of Washington and Lee calls for the removal of Robert E. Lee from the name of the University.” The outcome of the vote and final wording of the motion will be shared with the board, according to Alison Bell, who leads the committee.

“We need to confront our history with race,” more honestly, said Brandon Hasbrouck, an assistant professor of law, who advocates far more sweeping changes from the university. “If we do that — here’s the result: Both George Washington and Robert E. Lee were perpetrators of racial terror, and should be removed from the university name, full stop.”

He questioned why the predominantly white faculty — many of whom have worked at the school for years — had seemingly had a great awakening. “Why now?” he asked. He said some faculty members have said circumstances today are completely different.

“Different for who?” he asked. “Not for black people.”

Drewry Sackett, a spokeswoman for Washington and Lee said there are no current plans to change the university’s name. The board of trustees is “carefully monitoring developments regarding issues of race, monuments and symbols of the Confederacy and their implications for W&L,” she said in a statement. “Trustees are having conversations with students, faculty, staff, and alumni about these developments. As always, the trustees are focused on making decisions in the long-term best interest of the university.”

Chase Calhoun, a senior from Atlanta who is student body president, said there have been many difficult conversations recently about how the constant reminders of Lee’s legacy are painful for students of color in particular. On Thursday morning he read the statements to the board of trustees, telling them the executive committee of the student body had concluded that they could no longer remain silent on this issue.

After listening to discussions in recent weeks, they wrote, “it is clear Robert E. Lee’s enduring legacy on our campus and in our university’s name serves as a constant reminder for many, especially Black students and other students of color, of the racial oppression he fought to preserve and which has persisted throughout the history of our nation.”

As representatives of the student body, they wrote, they could not ignore students affected “most personally on a daily basis by the glorification of Robert E. Lee at Washington and Lee University. The call for the removal of Lee from our institutional name is not a call to erase our history, but rather a call to end the exaltation of a figure representative of values incongruous with the values of our university.”

It was just one of many changes that were needed at the school, they wrote. “[W]e are committed to concrete, institutionalized change that seeks to make the W&L experience meaningful and memorable for each and every student.”

“It’s the right thing to do,” said Dan Kator, a third-year law student and member of the executive committee. For him, the mass shooting at a church in Charleston in 2015 in which a white man who celebrated the Confederacy killed nine black parishioners was the moment when he knew that such symbols from the Civil War, “and that whole lost-cause mythology, was just utterly unacceptable.”

Changing the name, he said, should just be the beginning. “There’s a lot more that we can do at Washington and Lee and in society as a whole to try to make it a safer and more welcoming environment for people of all backgrounds.”

Joëlle Simeu, a black woman who just graduated from Washington and Lee, said it’s a jarring, emotionally traumatic time in this country. “I really hope,” she said, “this is not an instance when the university looks away.”