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Washington and Lee students want diplomas — without portraits of Washington and Lee on them

Some students at Washington and Lee University School of Law want the option of receiving a diploma that does not bear the image of President George Washington or General Robert E. Lee — the institution’s two namesakes.

The “Petition to Allow Washington & Lee Students to Opt-Out of Namesakes’ Portraits on Diplomas,” its authors claim, is a movement led by “both current students and alumni.”

“We are not asking for a mandatory change to the diplomas, but rather the option to have a diploma without portraits,” the petition states.

Organizers add the idea was sparked from the chaos of the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally.

“The goal of establishing this option is to create a diploma that alumni are proud to prominently display in their homes and places of work,” the petition states. “Given the aftermath of the 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville and the heightened awareness of making Washington & Lee an inclusive and compassionate environment to all students, we believe this request provides alumni the ability to honor their alma mater without the presence of the portraits that some may find controversial or offensive.”

Spokespersons for Washington and Lee University did not respond to The College Fix’s requests for comment on the matter.

But in a late-November statement published by Washington and Lee President Will Dudley and law school Dean Brant Hellwig, the two say that they respect the free speech rights of those behind the petition, and punted any decision on the matter to the Board of Trustees, “which has sole authority to confer degrees.”

Organizers of the petition also did not respond to requests from The College Fix seeking comment.

According to The Washington Post, the proposal is supported by more than half of the students at the Washington and Lee School of Law, but has also sparked backlash from alumni:

“That debate is deeply felt on the campus of this private university in Lexington, Va.: The school was named for Washington, an early benefactor, and Lee, an influential president of the university, who is buried in a chapel at the heart of campus. A commission examining how history shapes Washington and Lee suggested numerous changes last year but stopped short of recommending renaming the school.”

The petition has gained the backing of Rev. Rob W. Lee IV, a descendant of Robert E. Lee, who claims in a Dec. 5 letter that the removal of Washington and Lee will bring about “justice” as he combats the influence of money and those who seek to uphold a traditionalist view of history in the state of Virginia: “You can choose to side with wealth and power, but that is not the side that will ultimately win in our culture that is headed toward justice.”

But a group of “concerned” alumni called The Generals Redoubt have come out against the petition’s demands.

“The petition is a symptom of strong undercurrents within the University to dismantle the traditions, values and history of Washington and Lee. The removal of the likeness of George Washington and Robert E. Lee, which adorns the offices and homes of many of our alumni is a severe affront to the generous and loyal alumni who respect the character and values of our namesakes,” the group states.

As the university’s website explains: “Founded in 1749, Washington and Lee University is named for two men who played pivotal roles in the University’s history: George Washington, whose generous endowment of $20,000 in 1796 helped the fledgling school (then known as Liberty Hall Academy) survive, and Robert E. Lee, who provided innovative educational leadership during his transformational tenure as president of Washington College from 1865 to 1870.”

MORE: High school may erase mural of George Washington: ‘traumatizes students’

IMAGE: main, YouTube screenshot; inside, petition screenshot

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About the Author
Alberto Bufalino -- Wake Forest University