Washington and Lee University will maintain its name after a nearly yearlong review of whether to reconsider its linkage to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
The Board of Trustees announced that Friday as well as that there was no consensus regarding a name change. The board, acknowledging that having the university named after Lee can be painful for people who experience racism, voted 22-6 to keep the name. How each board member voted was not disclosed.
And at the same time, the board announced it would expand diversity and inclusion initiatives and a series of changes to campus buildings and symbols, practices and governance.
“We are confident that W&L will emerge stronger as a result of our active engagement on these issues, the work we have done together, and the actions and commitments we are taking,” the board said in its written statement. “We look forward to continuing to engage our community on these critical issues as we execute on our strategic plan in support of our mission.”
Washington and Lee formed a special committee in July to consider its relationship to Lee and whether to change its name. The board gathered input from campus constituencies, analyzed data and consulted experts.
The board received a divided response, in survey responses and reaction on campus, among the Washington and Lee community about the name of the university.
University faculty members were mostly in favor of dropping Lee’s name, voting 188-51 to do so during a meeting last summer. Some students also advocated for removing Lee’s name by organizing a campus walkout event at the end of the school year to express their position.
Banners with the words “Retain the Name” were displayed on campus and signs around Lexington, and pamphlet’s about Lee’s association with the university were left at buildings.
Washington and Lee has undergone a few name changes. It was founded as Augusta Academy in 1749, and then it became Liberty Hall Academy in 1776. After George Washington made a significant financial gift, it was renamed Washington College after the first president in 1813.
Originally founded as Augusta Academy in 1749, the university has repeatedly changed its name during its history. It became Liberty Hall Academy in 1776, and Washington College in 1813, after the first president gave it a significant financial gift.
Four months after surrendering to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in Appomattox in 1865, Lee was invited to serve as president of what was then called Washington College. He filled the role for five years until his death. He was revered for his work there at the time, credited with stabilizing the college’s finances and modernizing its curriculum. Shortly after his death, the university was renamed in his honor. He is entombed on the campus in Lexington, where the Confederacy’s legacy is seeped into the community’s identity and culture.
“Our community holds passionate and divergent opinions about our name,” the board wrote in a statement to the university community. “The association with our namesakes can be painful to those who continue to experience racism, especially to African Americans, and is seen by some as an impediment to our efforts to attract and support a diverse community. For others, our name is an appropriate recognition of the specific and significant contributions each man made directly to our institution.”
Colleges and universities across Virginia are reckoning with the names of their institutions and iconography associated with the Confederacy and slaveowners. Several community colleges are in the middle of changing their names. Virginia Military Institute, which is also located in Lexington, has taken steps to temper its association with the Confederacy, including removing the statue of Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson — who taught at VMI — from campus and scrubbing his name from buildings.
Washington and Lee has already made some changes. It’s removed Confederate flags and canceled visits from Confederate groups. This year, it hired its first associate provost for diversity and inclusion.
The board announced Friday it wants to expand its own diversity representation, form a board committee on diversity, equity and inclusion, and lead an examination of campus residential and social institutions. The board is made up of 28 people, 23 of whom are men. More than three-quarters of the board is white.
The board said the university will commit to establishing a new academic center for the study of Southern race relations, culture and politics as well as redesign the diploma, which is stamped with portraits of Lee and Washington.
The university will make changes to campus symbols and buildings. Lee Chapel will undergo renovations and be renamed to University Chapel, in keeping with its original 19th-century name of College Chapel. The board said it would oversee and approve interior changes to restore its unadorned design and to physically separate the auditorium from the Lee family crypt and a Lee memorial sculpture.
The university also will end Founders’ Day, an event held each year in January on Lee’s birthday.
The board announced that $225 million would be dedicated for scholarship, curricular development and student support, including raising funds to support its effort to not consider an applicant’s ability to pay for their education when making admission decisions and guaranteeing funding for internships and other experiences.
“We have been moved by listening to members of our community recount painful experiences at Washington and Lee,” the board wrote. “You have made a difference.”
Faculty expressed frustration at the decision. Law professor Chris Seaman called for immediate efforts to improve the diversity of the board.