It’s a defining moment for the Lexington, Va., university. While many institutions have been forced to reckon with historical names in recent years, few have an identity so closely tied to symbols of the past.
On Friday, the university announced that after a nearly year-long review of names, symbols and other elements of the campus, its Board of Trustees had concluded that there is broad support for advancing the school’s diversity and inclusion efforts — and no consensus on changing the name.
The school will rename and renovate Lee Chapel, university officials announced. The chapel has long been a formal gathering place and center of university traditions — and holds the family crypt for the general, a spot that is hallowed ground for some tourists who visit campus, and a jarring monument to a losing cause and racist iconography for others.
The board also announced a $225 million infusion of funding for scholarships, student support and curriculum development.
The school plans to establish a new academic center for the study of Southern race relations, culture and politics.
The board “acknowledged that the association with its namesakes can be painful to those who continue to experience racism,” according to a university news release, and “repudiated racial injustice in any form and expressed regret for the University’s past veneration of the Confederacy and the fact that the university itself owned human beings and benefited from their forced labor and sale.”
The board noted that the name is “also associated with an exceptional liberal arts and legal education and common experiences and values that are independent of the personal histories of the two men,” and is a “source of strength.”
Will Dudley, the university’s president, acknowledged in a statement that some in the community will disagree with the board’s stance.
“Debate regarding our communal aspirations is healthy,” Dudley wrote. “Undertaken constructively, it improves our understanding of who we are, sharpens our vision of who we might become, and catalyzes positive change over time.”
But he joined the board in condemning racism, racial injustice and Confederate nostalgia. “Some things are not up for debate,” Dudley said.
Trent Merchant, a 1992 graduate who was part of a group of alumni who advocated for changing the name, called the board’s decision “just mind-blowing.”
“It puts the board in a position where they have to defend and rationalize why they think the university should be named after an unrepentant white supremacist who was a traitor — in 2021.
“Our position has been that names and symbols communicate your values to the rest of the world. I think what the board is saying is that the values of Robert E. Lee are still the values of the university. And that’s shameful. There’s no way to defend that.”
Carliss Chatman, an associate law professor at the university, said she wasn’t surprised by the decision.
“When I first got here I thought, it’s just a name, it’s not a big deal. But it permeates the culture. We are like a mecca for white supremacists,” Chatman said. “If the name is Washington and Lee, and you’re not going to change the culture, it’s just surface.”
School officials said the diversity initiatives outlined by the board are designed to change the campus, but Chatman said she’s not hopeful. Instead, she’s looking to the students. Many of the initiatives the university announced Friday were generated from student proposals, she said.
Jerónimo Reyes, a student organizer who supported the name change, said he thinks the decision was a financial one, made to please alumni instead of current students and faculty.
“It’s not surprising, but still definitely disappointing,” said Reyes, who graduated from the university in May. “It’s all pretty evident to us that this is a decision, an inaction, based solely on the amount of money that the board of trustees believes they can get right now."
Tom Rideout, president of the Generals Redoubt, an alumni organization “dedicated to the preservation of the history, values, and traditions of Washington and Lee University,” according to its website, said the group supports the board’s choice to keep the name.
“Without those two benefactors, it is highly doubtful that there would be a Washington and Lee University as we know it today,” Rideout, a 1963 alumnus, said in a statement. “We understand the college’s namesakes may be controversial when viewed by today’s standards, but we believe it is important to view them both within their historical context — acknowledge their flaws but recognize their contributions.”
But the group has lingering concerns, particularly the university’s admission to “past veneration of the Confederacy and its role in perpetuating ‘The Lost Cause’ myths that sustained racism.” The board does not offer evidence for the statement, said Neely Young, vice president of the Generals Redoubt.
“We think some individuals may have done that,” including people unaffiliated with the university, Young said in an interview. “But we honor and respect our namesakes because of their contributions to the university, not because of their contributions to a ‘Lost Cause.’”
The private college has changed its name several times over its history. In 1776, it was renamed Liberty Hall. After George Washington gave the school a gift of stock in 1796 that saved it from financial ruin, it was renamed for him. Lee became president of the school after the Civil War, establishing its law school and making other changes.
Since 1870, when the faculty called for the school’s name to be changed to reflect the contributions Lee had made, the school has been known as Washington and Lee.
Over the years, the school’s legacy has been discussed numerous times, and symbols of the Confederacy have been minimized, removed or given historical context.
In recent years, those debates have intensified.
In 2017, after the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, the school’s president created a commission on institutional history and community, charged with examining the school’s past and making recommendations. The group suggested multiple changes but did not recommend altering the name.
Then last year, after the killing of George Floyd, students, faculty and an alumni group called for dramatic change. That summer, 79 percent of faculty who voted endorsed a call to remove Lee’s name from the university.