W&L’s Board of Trustees Might Have More to Worry About Than Just Robert E. Lee’s name
Compared to race relations at other colleges and universities, Washington and Lee is behind. Not only is this university still named after a confederate general, W&L has demonstrated a continuous problem with race aside from the obviously anti-Black symbology. Even outside Lee’s name, the university constantly attracts incidents of racism. Whether its GroupMe gate or Ku Klux Klan visits, W&L has a pattern: a pattern, when combined with the current countrywide focus on race, will land W&L on national news. The news, however, will not cover the elite liberal arts institution. Instead, the news will expose a community rife with racism.
Earlier this summer, W&L’s board of trustees announced a committee for consideration of a name change. Washington and Lee University is named after two men in the school’s history: President George Washington and Robert E. Lee. President Washington donated a lump sum of money to W&L during its years as Liberty Hall Academy, while Robert E. Lee served as W&L’s university’s president for five years after losing the Civil War. While President Washington’s name is on multiple universities and colleges, Lee’s name is on very few. It is precisely this attachment to Lee which, out of 4,000 higher education institutions in the country, makes W&L’s name stands out, forcing those in the W&L community to question the nature of this particular choice in namesake.
No other university is named after just a university president. Historically, when a university is named after a person, the person is usually a U.S President, university founder, or a university benefactor (e.g. George Washington, Cornell, John Hopkins). The role of university president does not earn one a university namesake, except at W&L. Robert E. Lee was never a U.S president; a university founder; nor a university benefactor. Lee was only a university president.
Although in that role Lee oversaw the addition of the law school and modern classes, a university improving itself is common practice. Many, if not all, university presidents oversaw developments in their institutions. Adding new departments, classes, and buildings that make the university more “modern” is not rare in higher education. Indeed, Lee was president during economic hardship, but he is not the only university president to do so. Many university presidents have suffered through at least one or two of America’s economic depression. Yet, no university is named after one of those university presidents.
Conversely, some argue W&L has Lee because of his character (see various Spectator articles). This argument is also unusual. Most universities are not named after someone simply for character. Even if they were, why Lee? W&L’s has a history of staff, professors, and alumni whom many agree are honorable, praiseworthy people. Staff who served their country. Professors who taught innovate courses improving the university. Alumni who were on the boards of Fortune 500 companies. Why is the former confederate general a special case?
This special case posed by our university, being that the inclusion of Lee’s name falls directly outside of the norms of namesake U.S. presidents, university benefactors, and university founders, forces us to confront directly the exceptionalism projected onto Lee and, therefore, the ideologies he has come to represent. We must name this exception for what it is; a commitment to the Lost Cause.
This attachment to Lost Cause symbology becomes then inseparable to the incidents of racism on and off campus attracted to such racist ideology.
For example, three years ago, GroupMe Gate joined the pattern of incidents of racism at this university. GroupMe Gate was a GroupMe chat exposed for its racially offensive and harmful images. GroupMe is a mobile messaging app which allows for any number of members to join in a chat. This particular chat had over 600 students from at least five different colleges of which only five students were directly named for the “worst/most frequent posts.” Four of those five students were W&L students.
While the administration made the four W&L students leave their fraternities and sports teams, the deans awarded one of these students with the Emerging Leader of the Year award. An award given to a “passionate” and “innovate” student “empowering other student leaders.” However, GroupMe Gate is not the only public incident of high profile racism which has occurred on this campus in the past few years.
In the last five years, the Ku Klux Klan has visited campus twice. On their first visit during the 2015-2016 academic school year, the KKK left threats in front of various houses in Lexington with W&L students, professors and staff waking up that morning to Klan threats on their front porch.
On the second visit during the 2018-2019 school year, they came on campus. They threw leaflets around the law school, around third-year housing, and around campus parking lots. On the leaflets, the KKK argued Lee should remain a university namesake and threatened people advocating for a name-change.
These KKK visits and GroupMe gates are concerning. Why does our school attract the Klan? Why out of 600 students from five different schools were four out of the five students exposed W&L students? Other schools are not named after people simply for serving as university president. Why is W&L still named after a confederate general?
As this most recent visit from the KKK makes clear, these incidents of racism cannot be separated from our namesake and its attachment to racist ideology. The continued use of the name “Washington and Lee” has quite literally endangered students through attracting the KKK and further signals to students, faculty and staff, and the broader community that the university has aligned itself with the Lost Cause and the ideology of white supremacy.
Nevertheless, I understand the Board of Trustees faces a polarizing decision with the name. Some alumni want the name to stay. Some people in W&L ‘s administration want the name to stay. However, with a confederate general in our name and W&L’s pattern of racial issues, we will make national news.
The news will not cover our outstanding liberal arts program or our exceptionally small classroom size. No, the news will only cover GroupMe Gates, Ku Klux Klan visits, and other racial incidents yet to be exposed. Which, in turn, will only attract more incidents of racism.
Thus, the Board of Trustees has a critical obligation. They must change the name of our school. W&L has always had its problems with racism, but the rest of the country is beginning to address its racist past. If W&L cannot even change its name, how will W&L look to the rest of the country?