Board of Trustees’ Plan to Address Issues of Racial Justice and University History A new committee will conduct a thoughtful and deliberative process, soliciting widespread input from all of our constituencies, gathering and analyzing data, and consulting experts as needed to inform its work.
President Dudley has written to you recently regarding Washington and Lee’s response to protests and expressions of outrage in the national search for racial justice.
The Board of Trustees has been watching and listening carefully during this time, and we have been moved by the importance of these issues and the passions they ignite. We have received numerous requests from students, faculty and alumni calling for changes in the university, including re-naming the institution itself and altering the design of its diploma. And we have received equally urgent communications emphasizing that change in support of racial justice should not require any change to the university’s name or its diploma.
We are keenly aware that the nation’s founders, like all human beings, were flawed and that many of them, including George Washington, actively participated in the institution of slavery. And we know that for many people, Confederate symbols and leaders, perhaps most notably Robert E. Lee, are painful reminders of a war fought to uphold slavery and are commonly associated with contemporary expressions of abhorrent racist sentiment.
W&L’s ties to these individuals are an undeniable part of our history. Our association with George Washington stems from his financial gift to Liberty Hall Academy in 1796, which saved the institution from financial ruin and enabled it to improve and grow. Our association with Robert E. Lee stems from his presidency of Washington College from 1865-1870, a service that re-constituted the college after the Civil War and initiated its transformation into a modern university.
Robert E. Lee was buried on our campus upon his death in 1870, at which time our predecessors on the Board of Trustees at Washington College added his name to the institution in his honor. In the 150 years since, generations of W&L students have developed a deep affection for the university. Our alumni have gone on to serve their countries, communities and professions in a variety of leadership capacities, helping to build Washington and Lee’s reputation as a university housing one of the finest liberal arts colleges in the nation and a law school of distinction.
The Board recognizes the dissonance between our namesakes’ connections to slavery and their significant contributions to the university. And we are committed to a deep and detailed review of our symbols and our name with the intention of securing the brightest possible future for this institution:
We have formed a special Board committee to conduct this work. The committee is composed of 10 current trustees, led by co-chairs William Toles ’92, ’95L and Craig Owens ’76. President Dudley will participate in an ex-officio capacity.
The committee will conduct a thoughtful and deliberative process, soliciting widespread input from all of our constituencies, gathering and analyzing data, and consulting experts as needed to inform its work.
The committee will begin its work immediately. Upon completion of the committee’s work, the full Board will consider its findings and determine what steps should be taken.
There will be opportunities for the community to express their opinions to the Board, including focus groups with students, faculty and staff, and outreach to alumni. More information on these opportunities will be forthcoming soon. We have not established a timeline for completion of this process but know that it will be a primary focus of the Board in the coming months alongside our focus on the health and safety of our community in light of COVID-19.
We want to emphasize that the Board has not pre-judged this issue and will not act hastily. We are aware that many of you think it should be easy to make a quick decision, but that is not the case. We have been known as Washington and Lee University for 150 years. Reviewing the name of a distinguished and historic institution is a task not to be taken lightly. At the same time, we are steadfast in our commitment to building and sustaining a more diverse and inclusive community. We pledge as in all respects to act in the best interest of the university so that we may fulfill our mission for the sake of past, present and future members of our community.
Our success in this work will depend on our collective ability to exchange ideas thoughtfully, constructively and with mutual respect. On behalf of the entire Board of Trustees, I thank you for joining us in approaching this crucial endeavor in that spirit.
If you wish to respond to this message, please email BoardofTrustees@wlu.edu.