Why did President Dudley allow an offensive agitator to speak at Lee Chapel?
In March of 2020, President Dudley allowed Heather Mac Donald to speak at Lee Chapel, Washington and Lee’s chapel named after Robert E. Lee. Despite students complaining that she was only speaking to offend people, President Dudley did nothing, but his inaction is unsurprising. Considering his response to the Commission on Institutional History and Community, he might have a blind spot for Lee Chapel.
In August of 2017, President Dudley formed the Commission on Institutional History and Community. One of the commission’s purposes was to address the university’s relationship with Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general who is both a part of the university’s history and this nation’s racist past. President Dudley appointed twelve people to the commission, consisting of students, alumni, staff, and professors, whom President Dudley trusted to identify opportunities to improve the ways we teach our history.
In May 2018, the commission finished their report and sent it to President Dudley. Out of the thirty-one recommendations, the commission wrote five related to Lee Chapel (No. 10, No. 18, No. 20, No. 23, No. 29). Lee Chapel is a primary topic in the commission’s report. President Dudley called it “central to the university for 150 years.” He also said it is a “site of shared experiences that unite W&L,” but it is also a place that makes some of “our community feel unwelcome.” He recognized the divisiveness of Lee Chapel, and the commission did as well. In those five recommendations, the commission thought it best to: relocate the honor orientation and honor book signing from Lee Chapel; convert Lee Chapel into a museum without university functions; put an end to programs re-enforcing the “mythic Lee;” rename Lee Chapel to just the Chapel or the University Chapel; and move the management of Lee Chapel from the Office of University Advancement to the Office of the Provost.
President Dudley ignored all five of these recommendations. In his response to the commission’s report, he came up with his own plans, claiming he would “recapture” Lee Chapel. As a result, President Dudley appointed the Director of Institutional History. This director would do the same job the commission did, and advise President Dudley on how to handle the complex emotions attached to Lee Chapel. Two years after he announced his “recapture” plan, President Dudley allowed the Generals Redoubt to invite Heather Mac Donald as a speaker in Lee Chapel.
The Generals Redoubt is an independent organization from W&L. By their own admission, redoubt is a “military term” for a “temporary defensive position” to launch an “offensive operation.” Their purpose is to correct the “The Drip, Drip, Drip of Political Correctness" at Washington and Lee. In May 2019, the Generals Redoubt sent a mass email to the entire student body, containing a list of goals, such as the elimination of “niche courses” focused on “identity politics” and “frivolous subject matter.” In the same mass email, they sent out a list of these "frivolous subject matters:" Literature, Race, and Ethnicity; Women and Gender in Modern Europe; Muslims in the Movies; African Feminisms; Queering Colonialism; and News, Media, Race, and Ethnicity, classes they described as “trivial” and “innate.” Following through with their “offensive operation” to eliminate “niche courses” at W&L, they somehow gained the opportunity to invite Heather Mac Donald to speak at Lee Chapel.
Heather Mac Donald is a controversial person. She wrote two provocative articles: “The Campus Rape Myth” and “The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture.” The latter was the main topic of her speech at Lee Chapel. Besides mocking social distancing in New York for COVID-19, Mac Donald spoke about the dangers of “identity politics” courses. She argued that classes specializing in Black and female authors should not be taught in higher education, especially at W&L. She reasoned that these classes encouraged “narcissism” in university students, and criticized students for daring to talk about their gender and their sexuality. She held these topics were “uninteresting to her,” and thus, should not be allowed in higher education.
A conversation about what college courses should be taught does not make her an offensive agitator, however. What makes her an offensive agitator is her intention to provoke minority students rather than furthering an actual dialogue. In her Lee Chapel speech, she brought up President Donald Trump. She did not mention President Trump to support any of her arguments about “uninteresting” courses, she did so to antagonize students. She mentioned him to critique students, for what she called “complaining,” about his racism. She did not call students narcissistic for wanting to learn about society's representation of themselves, she did it to demean them. She titled her article “The Campus Rape Myth” to mock victims, using the word “myth” to belittle the stories of victims. She titled her article “How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture” to annoy students of color, implying that discussions and classes on race are not a part of our “culture.” Even with offensive agitators like Heather Mac Donald, the problem still lies with President Dudley.
President Dudley should not have allowed Mac Donald to speak at Lee Chapel. President Dudley claims he can “recapture” Lee Chapel, but how will he do that when he allows speakers who intentionally antagonize minority students? If President Dudley cannot prevent bad faith speakers at Lee Chapel, how is he going to "recapture" Lee Chapel? The Generals Redoubt launched an “offensive operation” on classes teaching about race and gender. How does President Dudley expect students to “engage in vigorous and civil debate” if the classes teaching about race and gender are attacked?
There are some who may confuse Mac Donald speaking at Lee Chapel as an issue of free speech, but that argument misses the point. Speaking at Lee Chapel is a privilege, not a right. Should it not be reserved for only respectful individuals? If the Chapel is “central to the university,” why would President Dudley not make sure it is respected? Why would President Dudley allow speakers at Lee Chapel who make necessary discussions about race harder to have?
I believe W&L has a tremendous opportunity with Lee Chapel: one to present a national example of how to confront a complex history of oppression. However, President Dudley’s actions over the last two years with Lee Chapel fills me with doubt. I question not just his future plans for the Chapel, but I also question his overall plans for addressing any of Washington and Lee’s race, gender, and diversity issues.