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Washington and Lee University faculty demand removal of Robert E. Lee from school name

Black law faculty want to remove George Washington, too

The erasure of history continues apace in higher education.

Nearly two-thirds of Washington and Lee University faculty voted to remove Confederate General Robert E. Lee from the school’s name. The Board of Trustees at the small liberal arts school, where Lee was once president and is now buried, will consider the motion.

Black permanent faculty in the law school want a full renaming of the university, removing George Washington as well, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Washington’s donated stock kept the school from shuttering in 1796, and it continues to feed the endowment, the university says on its namesakes page.

The Monday afternoon vote was prompted by the faculty affairs committee and scheduled by President Will Dudley. The removal motion drew around 80 percent support of those voting, and more than 80 percent of the 300-plus faculty voted.

The board is already considering the “removal of all references to the Confederacy” following an earlier petition signed by more than 200 faculty. The proposal to erase Lee moved at lightning speed, according to the newspaper: Faculty only started “[f]ormal conversations” on June 24.

The executive committee of the student government supports removal. It told the student body in a letter that erasing Lee from the university was “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.”

A student petition from late last year, however, specified that it wanted to literally erase the portraits of Washington and Lee on diplomas.

MORE: W&L students want diplomas without W&L on them

The motion by black law faculty to remove Washington as well failed. They told President 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. It is no longer acceptable, profitable or convenient to be associated with Lee but it is for Washington.

The erasure of namesakes is just a start for activist faculty:

“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,” [Political Science Prof. Zoila] 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.”

While the Times-Dispatch notes the university had four previous names, it has had the same name since 1870, when President Lee died.

The university, which had unbelievably remained open during the Civil War, asked Lee to take the reins in 1865 with the hope that “his reputation as the leader of the Confederate army could help attract students and funding from both the north and the south, thereby allowing the school to recover from its perilous situation,” the namesakes page says. The trustees “believed that his dedication to principle and duty would inspire students and faculty.”

MORE: Judge orders W&L to turn over evidence of potential anti-male bias

For the moment, at least, the university calls Lee’s presidency “transformative”:

Prior to the Civil War, Lee had been superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point. During his five years at Washington College, he proved to be a creative educator whose curricular innovations transformed the classical college into a modern university. He incorporated the local law school; instituted undergraduate courses in business and journalism; introduced modern languages and applied mathematics; and expanded offerings in the natural sciences.

The students calling for his removal actually owe their self-governance to Lee:

Lee also endorsed a lasting tradition of student self-governance, putting the students in charge of the honor system that the faculty had previously overseen. “As a general principle you should not force young men to do their duty,” Lee said, “but let them do it voluntarily and thereby develop their characters.”

The general showed more grace and humility than those students when he wrote to his wife upon accepting the job:

Life is indeed gliding away and I have nothing good to show for mine that is past. I pray I may be spared to accomplish something for the benefit of mankind and the honour of God.

Read the article.

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

IMAGE: Seamartini Graphics/Shutterstock

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg spent several years as a technology policy reporter and editor for Warren Communications News in Washington, D.C., and guest host on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators.” He co-founded the alternative newspaper PUNCH and served as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Falcon at Seattle Pacific University.

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