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A Message from President Dudley Regarding Institutional History and Community

To: The W&L Community
From: President Will Dudley

When I accepted the presidency of Washington and Lee, I immediately and eagerly set out to learn about the history of the university. I read as much as I could. I’m still reading. My approach stems from intellectual curiosity and professional necessity. You cannot lead an institution that you do not understand, and you cannot understand an institution that is nearly 270 years old without being well informed about its past — especially its pivotal moments and figures.

The tragic events of Charlottesville, which I addressed in my message to the campus community on Aug. 14, remind us that knowing our history is also a civic obligation. Ignorance is irresponsible and dangerous. When I urged us to “embrace our ignorance” in my Commencement address on May 25, the point was not that we should allow ourselves to persist in partial or superficial understanding, but rather that we should be mindful of the most important things we do not yet know, in order that we might be spurred to examine them more deeply.

The basic facts of the unique association of our university with Robert E. Lee are fairly straightforward and well-known to those familiar with W&L. Lee became the president of Washington College in 1865, only months after the end of the Civil War. As president, Lee took a small, classical college on the verge of extinction and set it on a course to become a modern university by introducing curricular innovations that included the addition of the Law School and undergraduate courses in the natural sciences, mathematics, foreign languages, journalism and business. He also established a tradition of student self-governance that remains essential to the university today. Our name was changed to Washington and Lee University immediately following his death in 1870, in recognition of his service to the college.

Of course, Lee’s tenure at Washington College cannot and should not be reduced to such a simple story. And the five years he spent in Lexington, important as they were, represent but one period in his life. Lee was also a Confederate general, a slave owner, a superintendent of West Point, a distinguished veteran of the Mexican-American War, and an Army engineer who helped preserve the port of St. Louis. I list those designations not in the belief that they yield self-evident conclusions, but rather as starting points for the full and critical examination of history that it is our role, as an educational institution, to encourage and undertake.

In this moment, we should do what we have always done best. We should teach, and we should learn. We should educate ourselves and others more fully about the history of our university and our namesakes. We should engage together in a critical analysis that goes beyond the caricatures of one-dimensional heroes and villains to understand who we have been, who we are, and who we can become.

Robert E. Lee died nearly a century and a half ago. Today, we are among the preeminent liberal arts institutions in the country. Washington and Lee has positively and profoundly affected the lives of generations of students, faculty and staff. I am fortunate and proud to be here.

I am especially grateful for our alumni, who — no matter their age, or profession, or perspective — are exceptionally thoughtful, respectful and deeply concerned with what is best for W&L. In recent weeks, I have heard from many of them, from all over the country, as well as from many members of our campus community. Nearly every single person emphasizes that our history, in all of its dimensions, deserves and needs to be more widely and fully known. I agree.

Yesterday, at our annual Town Hall Meeting, I announced the creation of a Commission on Institutional History and Community, which will be composed of students, faculty, staff and alumni, to lead us in an examination of how our history — and the ways that we teach, discuss and represent it — shapes our community. The commission’s work will include studying how our physical campus, a significant portion of which is a National Historic Landmark, can be presented in ways that take full advantage of its educational potential and are consistent with our core values. I am confident that Washington and Lee will set a national example for how this work should be done, and that our own community will be better and stronger for having done it.

The Office of the Provost is also planning a year-long academic series entitled “Washington and Lee: Education and History.” This series will give the entire community opportunities to attend lectures and participate in dialogues that will deepen our understanding of ourselves and what we do as a university in 21st-century America. Many of these events have been planned for months, and we are adding others to further enrich what will be a robust program. We will livestream as many of the talks as possible and will support alumni who would like to organize viewings and discussions in their local areas.

Washington and Lee will continue to be guided by our motto — non incautus futuri — and steadfast in our mission. We provide an education that prepares students to think critically, act with integrity, and participate as engaged citizens in a global and diverse society. This mission, which we all take pride in serving, makes it incumbent upon us to create and sustain an increasingly diverse and inclusive campus that reflects the world in which we live. This is difficult work, but our shared commitment to Washington and Lee will sustain our resolve to accomplish it. I am honored to join you in working together on behalf of our university.