Thank you all for your courage in holding this event. And thank you for inviting me to speak.
The emphasis on money—who has it and who does not, and who is willing to give it to the university and who is not—is one of the most disturbing aspects of the debate over demands to change the university’s name.
Money is important to the Board of Trustees, and it should be. It is their job to keep the university in good shape financially.
But at W&L, money determines who matters, and who does not. In my brief time as an elected faculty representative to the board, I was stunned when former trustees hijacked the board’s February meeting for several minutes.
The ex-trustees engaged in what amounted to an open mic night for Generals Redoubt. They threatened to stop making donations. And they warned that alums are writing the university out of their wills if the name is changed.
It was a blatant show of force by people who are used to getting their way by relying on their wealth and privilege. Because of who they are and how much money they have, they got away with it. They had access to a powerful platform that alums and students on the other side of the issue were not afforded.
They claim they love this university. Threatening someone or something you claim to care about is not love. It is vindictive. It is ugly.
I have been on the receiving end of the ugliness because of an essay I wrote for The Nation last June. I accused the university of miseducating generations of students by encouraging them to worship Robert E. Lee.
Lee is not worthy of having this university named after him. He does not deserve it.
Lee was a traitor.
He was a racist. He fought for the Confederacy because he wanted to allow white Southerners to get even richer by keeping other human beings in bondage.
At best, he misled Congress about whether he’d sworn allegiance to the Confederacy. At worst, he lied.
As a bitter, old man, he intimidated his students.
He even beat up his loyal horse, Traveller.
I’ve heard from dozens of angry alums and parents, who have told me, “If you don’t like it, you should leave.”
Along those same lines, an older alum asked me why a minority, especially a Black person, would ever enroll at W&L knowing its history, knowing there isn’t much diversity, and knowing that students of color aren’t treated well.
I told him the answer is apparent, if you bother to think about it: People of color want what women wanted when they brought co-education to this school. Students of color want what young white men have always wanted and always gotten from this university. And that is opportunity:
Opportunity to get a great education;
Opportunity to catapult themselves into lucrative careers;
Opportunity to develop close relationships with professors;
Opportunity to network with well-connected alums in a variety of fields;
And the opportunity to make life-long friends.
Students of color want what all young people want: They want the chance to make their dreams come true.
To us, it’s obvious. To some trustees, alums and parents, it’s a threat. They are clinging to a way of life that does not—and should not—exist anymore.
If the trustees maintain the status quo and stick with Lee, the university will remain stuck in the past.
It will not grow.
It will fail to prepare its students for a changing world.
The workplaces of today do not resemble our classrooms. Our classrooms do not come close to reflecting the workplaces of tomorrow.
Our students will face questions from prospective employers about the name of their school. It’s already happening. They may even lose job offers and promotions because of it.
Maybe then, when it comes down to money, the board of trustees will get it. But it might be too late.
With our presence here today, we challenge the trustees to:
Show some courage.
Stand up to vindictive alums.
Stop living in the past.
Let go of Lee.
Change the name.
Change it now.