The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A Virginia college taps the brakes on change

A marker memorializing Robert E. Lee's horse Traveller sits just outside the Lee Chapel at the University of Washington and Lee on Sept. 20, 2017. (Photo by Norm Shafer for The Washington Post). (Norm Shafer)

As Confederate monuments topple and sensibilities start to change, one institution is sticking with tradition.

Despite pressures from within and without, the Washington and Lee University Board of Trustees has voted 22-6 to keep its 151-year-old name. The decision, announced Friday in a lengthy memo to “The W&L community,” followed 11 months of deliberations that included surveys, letters and listening sessions involving faculty, students, alumni and parents.

The memo recognized why some would think a name change was overdue and appropriate. The university was originally named for President George Washington in recognition of his 1796 gift to keep then-named Liberty Hall Academy alive. Robert E. Lee’s surname was added upon his death in 1870 while serving as president of Washington College — not for his leadership of the Confederate Army, the university said, but for his work restoring the school following the war.

Some 2,000 alumni have called on the school to change its name, mostly because of Lee’s role in defending the Confederacy; so have a majority of current faculty. Other alumni were well arrayed against any change. What no one disputes is that the school is steeped in history, for good and ill.

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Changing the name would have had ramifications beyond immediate gratification. Our nation’s original sin — slavery — certainly can’t be repaired by symbolic gestures alone. This seems to have been the thinking behind W&L’s plan, also just announced, to alter some of its other traditions, habits and artifacts, including removing the two generals’ images from its diplomas — while making more substantive changes to increase diversity. “We are making changes,” the board said, “to remove doubt about our separation from the Confederacy and the Lost Cause.”

One structural change will be to Lee Chapel. Part chapel and part mausoleum for Lee’s remains, the campus building traditionally has been the solemn site of W&L’s honor code ceremony for students. Not only is Lee’s tomb on view, but Confederate flags were part of the display until a few years ago. It’s little wonder students were uncomfortable with this practice and demanded change. Going forward, the building will be named “University Chapel.” The Lee family crypt and a Lee sculpture will be removed from the auditorium. An annual Founders Day event will be discontinued.

The board’s memorandum included a list of laments and regrets: repudiation of racism and racial injustice; regret for the school’s “past veneration of the Confederacy and its role in perpetuating ’The Lost Cause’ myths that sustained racism” and regret “that the university itself owned human beings and benefited from their forced labor and sale.”

That sounds like an apology that was too long coming. It is also a blueprint for substantive changes the school promises to make, including raising $160 million to fund the education of students regardless of financial circumstances. That means that a school that has generally served a well-to-do White population is investing in a more diverse student body.

That said, the school was under tremendous pressure from a collection of donors that essentially threatened to close their checkbooks if the name was changed. Opposing the name change doesn’t make anyone a racist. It does underscore the value of tradition and history. As an alumni parent, I was agnostic; as a journalist, I could understand both sides.

I recently moderated a panel at the College of Charleston in South Carolina about monuments, memorials and institutions that honor people who, notwithstanding any worthy contributions, were also slaveholders. My panelists, who rallied to the cause of civil discourse, were a diverse group of thinkers: Post columnist Jonathan Capehart, political commentator Michelle Bernard, RealClearPolitics Washington bureau chief Carl M. Cannon, and Charleston attorney and historian Robert N. Rosen.

As devil’s advocate, I wondered if there isn’t some value to preserving heritage and history, even if it makes us uncomfortable. Bernard’s response: “Exactly what heritage are you trying to preserve?” When I asked Capehart if there were any space for empathy toward people who want to honor their Confederate forebears’ valor — if not the cause for which they fought — he laughed, thanked me for the easy question, and said, “No.”

Cannon said W&L should return to being called Washington College because, though both namesakes were slaveholders, Lee was also a traitor. Rosen asked simply: “Where does it end?”

There you have it. Three Whites, two Blacks, three men, two women and six ways to Sunday.

Whatever one thinks of W&L’s decision, the board was a model for approaching controversial issues. If talk is sometimes cheap, it can also be therapeutic. Honesty expressed with civility surely will get us further along the road to mutual understanding and resolution than destroying public property and, along with it, the goodwill we’ll need if we are to create a peaceful future together.

Read more:

Brandon Hasbrouck: Both namesakes of Washington and Lee University perpetrated racial terror. The school should be renamed.

Letters to the Editor: Defending the honor of Washington and Lee University

Kathleen Parker: Andrew Yang’s humor may be just what New York City needs

Robert W. Lee IV: Robert E. Lee is my ancestor. Take down his statue, and let his cause be lost.

Kate Cohen: Don’t get too attached to your institution’s name. It’s only for now.