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Washington & Lee Will Keep its Name

Students sit on blankets on lawn in front of Washington & Lee University
Students relax on the campus of Washington and Lee University in 2018. (Ben Paviour/VPM News)

Washington and Lee University will keep the school's name, the university announced on Friday, preserving its ties to the Confederacy’s most famous general. 

Critics of the school's move say it sends the wrong message to students of color who have pushed for the  university to make them feel more welcome. 

Robert E. Lee served as the private university’s president after the Civil War and is buried in a crypt in a namesake chapel on campus in the town of Lexington, Virginia. Former U.S. President George Washington donated money to what was then Liberty Hall Academy school in 1796. 

The university’s Board of Trustees made the decision in a 22-6 vote.  In a statement, the school said there was not clear consensus on the names’ symbolism. 

“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,” the statement said. “For others, our name is an appropriate recognition of the specific and significant contributions each man made directly to our institution.” 

The school will undertake several other changes. The chapel holding the Lee family crypt will be renamed University Chapel. Images of Lee and Washington’s faces will no longer appear on diplomas. The university vowed to expand the board to include more people of color and will work to raise $160 million to give students equal consideration for admission regardless of their financial situation, a goal of the university since  its 2018 strategic plan

The Board’s decision to take up the issue was sparked by last summer’s racial justice protests. The school said more than 15,000 students, faculty, staff and alumni submitted feedback ahead of the Board’s decision.  

Several faculty and alumni described the changes as inadequate.  

Adenike Miles-Sorinmade, a recent Black law school graduate and one of three former students who led a 2019 push to remove the images of Lee and Washington from diplomas, pointed out the university had rebuffed their efforts until last summer.  In its initial statement, the school defended Lee, saying he “bolstered enrollment, raised funds, and added the law school” and said its decision was final. Miles-Sorinmade said she felt as if she was being told to feel grateful to Lee, adding that she didn’t realize how deep the school’s Confederate ties ran. 

"We've been called the N-word at school, we've been harassed when the KKK comes to Lexington once a year,” Miles-Sorinmade said. “There are so many different great people in this world who contributed to where we are today. Why do we need to hold on to the names of people who did things that are despicable?”  

The push to change names appears to be gaining momentum. In July 2020, Washington and Lee faculty  voted 188 to 51 to change the name. In March of this year,  students staged a walkout to pressure the school. Chris Seaman, an associate professor at the law school, said the university needed to reconsider how it chooses board members who appeared to be out of touch with prevailing opinions. 

“It is overwhelmingly white, wealthy, and older, many of whom graduated before the university went co-educational,” he said. “And I think younger people, younger alumni have been vocal about wanting a name change.” 

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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