Seventy-nine percent voted in favor of a formal resolution: “The Faculty of Washington and Lee calls for the removal of Robert E. Lee from the name of the University.”
In 1870, “Lee was a symbol of who that faculty wanted to be, and who they were,” said Alison Bell, who leads the Faculty Affairs Committee. “The faculty is back 150 years later, asking the university for a name change because Lee does not represent who we are and who we want to be. … Lee just cannot symbolize our community any more.”
It was another sign of the increasing pressure on the private liberal arts school to reconsider its name as institutions across the country confront their history amid national protests over racial injustice and police brutality. Monuments have been toppled and traditions upended as people question the symbols and narratives of their collective past.
At Washington and Lee, those questions have been close to the surface for several years, especially after violence in nearby Charlottesville prompted an examination of how the institution’s history affects its community in the present.
On Tuesday, Mike McAlevey, the rector of the board of trustees, told the campus that a committee of the board would embark on a review of the symbols and name of the university.
“We are aware that many of you think it should be easy to make a quick decision, but that is not the case,” he wrote in an email. “We have been known as Washington and Lee University for 150 years. Reviewing the name of a distinguished and historic institution is a task not to be taken lightly.” At the same time, he wrote, officials are steadfast in their commitment to building a more diverse and inclusive community.
The university’s name honors George Washington, a pivotal early financial benefactor, and Lee, who served as president of the university after the Civil War.
The vote follows a resolution from student government last week asking for the name to be changed, an end to the glorification of Lee and lasting institutional change.
The Faculty Affairs Committee asked the university’s president, William C. Dudley, to call a special meeting of the university faculty. He quickly complied, said Bell, an associate professor of anthropology. The group met virtually via Zoom on Monday to consider its motion to remove Lee’s name.
Separately, more than 200 faculty members — including those without voting rights at a formal faculty meeting, such as visiting and non-tenure-track professors — had signed on to a petition calling on the university to change the name.
At Monday’s meeting, people spoke for and against the resolution, Bell said, and one person called for the school to drop the names of both Washington and Lee. That was not approved.
Three black faculty members at the law school had earlier endorsed a statement calling on the school to remove both names, writing that “Washington’s brutality, inhumanity, and cruelty are well documented,” and that “Lee’s reputation for racial violence and hatred is well known. He was a monster.”
The school’s adoration of the men, they wrote, “effectively signals adoring and cheering for racial subordination and violence.” Brandon Hasbrouck, who wrote the statement, said in an email after the meeting that he did not expect the largely white faculty to endorse it.
But the call to remove Lee’s name was approved, 188 to 51, Bell said.
Faculty are just one of many university constituencies the school’s leaders must consider, Bell said, but they appreciate the opportunity to add their voices to the debate.
Drewry Sackett, a spokeswoman for the university, did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement last week, she said there were no 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, having conversations with many constituencies and focused on making decisions in the long-term best interest of the school.
Many alumni have been pressing for the name change, too, while others have adamantly opposed it. The Generals Redoubt, a group dedicated to preserving the school’s history and values, has announced hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations since its founding.
Tom Rideout, the president of that group, said it supports the school’s continued efforts to increase diversity among students and faculty but believes that an important element is missing from that: ideological diversity. He said the results of the vote were evidence of that — and a perfect example of “cancel culture.”
“We think both Washington and Lee present wonderful teaching opportunities,” Rideout said. With “the complexities of their lives, their associations with slavery, Lee’s association with the Confederacy, we think the school could actually build a wonderful program to teach people about these issues of racial bias and racial and social justice” and become a destination for students interested in those issues.
“We’re saying use Washington and Lee, leverage them to achieve your goals, rather than risk destroying what the two of them built.”
Bell said she was flooded with messages Monday night after the meeting that asked, in effect, “What next?”
Faculty are dead serious, she said, about ensuring that any decision was not just a symbolic act, but the beginning of real change. “This seems like an important moment and an important jumping-off point for really meaningful work that will take all hands on deck,” including faculty, coaches, deans and alumni, she said.
“We agree on the goals,” Bell said. “We all have the sense right now that it’s time to roll up our sleeves.”