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Washington and Lee faculty vote to change the university's name

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Washington and Lee University campus

Washington and Lee University in Lexington plans to resume full campus operations by Aug. 10.

Washington and Lee University faculty passed a motion to remove Robert E. Lee from the name of the small liberal arts college in Lexington.

The motion — the first time for W&L faculty to make such a recommendation — will be sent to the board of trustees.

W&L President Will Dudley called a special meeting to discuss the motion at the request of the faculty affairs committee. More than 260 faculty members attended the virtual meeting late Monday afternoon and 79% of them voted for the motion.

“The university’s name rests with its board of trustees, and there are no current plans to change it,” said university spokeswoman Drewry Sackett.

The school was named for George Washington, an early benefactor, and Lee, the former Confederate general and president of the university who is buried in the chapel at the heart of campus. Washington and Lee University is the school’s fifth name since 1749.

The three permanent Black faculty members at W&L’s law school called for the removal of both Washington’s and Lee’s names from the school’s name, according to a letter sent to Dudley.

“It is worth exploring why the faculty has decided to make a collective statement on Lee and why the faculty has not included a demand to drop Washington in their petition,” according to the letter written by Brandon Hasbrouck, an alum and associate professor of law. “It is no longer acceptable, profitable or convenient to be associated with Lee but it is for Washington.”

An amendment was proposed to include the removal of Washington’s name, but that motion failed.

Faculty members also discussed the importance of having wider discussions about the overall campus climate, said Zoila Ponce de Leon, an assistant professor of politics.

“A name change is a symbolic gesture, but what we really need to invest our energy in is changing our behavior as faculty and students,” Ponce de Leon said. “The members of our community who come from diverse backgrounds don’t feel comfortable because of how we treat people — it isn’t just the name.”

The special faculty meeting was held after more than 200 faculty members signed a petition calling for the removal of all references to the Confederacy from the campus, as well as from the school’s name. That petition has already been sent to the board.

Formal conversations among faculty members about the name change began at a virtual meeting on June 24.

“We feel like we’re going to end up on the wrong side of this as an institution and that it will harm us,” said Jim Casey, an alum and professor of economics who organized the initial meeting. “Everyone who was in that conversation feels that the best thing for our institution is to drop our affiliation with Lee.”

After violence in Charlottesville three years ago, Casey said there were conversations then about renaming W&L. “It’s different in 2020 than it was in 2017 and we’re sort of back at the table with this particular issue. It was very clear to me in this conversation that faculty members, since the murder of George Floyd, have been thinking very, very seriously about a lot of these issues,” Casey said.

Students and alumni also have expressed support for a name change.

Chase Calhoun, the student body president, told the board of trustees last week that the executive committee of the student body supports changing the school’s name.

“The call for the removal of Lee from our institutional name is not a call to erase our history, but rather a call to end the exultation of a figure representative of values incongruous with the values of our university,” said the statement sent to the student body by the executive committee.

“We are committed to concrete, institutionalized change that seeks to make the W&L experience meaningful and memorable for each and every student,” the statement said.

More than 2,000 alumni have joined a group advocating for change, called Not Unmindful.

A separate alumni group, called Generals Redoubt, opposes the name change.

The group was formed in 2018 in response to a commission that examined the school’s institutional history. The commission suggested many changes, including renaming some campus buildings, but stopped short of recommending renaming the school.

“The Generals Redoubt unequivocally opposes the changing of the name... It believes a recent resolution by tenured faculty calling for the removal of Robert E. Lee’s name from that of the university poses a serious challenge of financial and reputational sustainability,” the group’s treasurer, Elizabeth Barry Brown, said in an email to students and alumni on June 27.

Students have also shared their thoughts on how conversations about race throughout the country impact the Washington and Lee community, through the board of trustees’ “listening group.”

“The board is carefully monitoring developments regarding issues of race, monuments and symbols of the Confederacy and their implications for W&L,” Sackett said. “Trustees are having conversations with students, faculty, staff and alumni.”


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