Washington and Lee University is, in a sense, a shrine to the Confederacy, taking its name from leader Robert E. Lee, who is buried on campus and whose tomb is often a centerpiece for on-campus events. And despite protestations from students, faculty and alumni, amid a nationwide wave of knocking down statues and dedications, the school is hunkering down on its ideals.
Those hoping for changes had been asked by the university’s president to give a commission time to investigate the school’s ties to white supremacy and recommend how the campus should proceed. In May, the commission made 31 recommendations, the most important of which was to convert Lee Chapel into a museum.
But to the disappointment of many who were told their concerns about the school would be addressed through this process, President William Dudley responded last week in a letter saying that no changes will be made to Lee Chapel, and that students will continue to be required to attend events there. Exasperated students and faculty, who had hoped the recommendations would be implemented, returned to class this week with little hope the school will ever change.
“It’s like President Dudley is saying in one sense that he supports diversity, but in the same sentence he’s saying we are unwilling to change the fact that Lee is the centerpiece of campus,” said Stefani Evans, a rising third-year law student and member of Coalition for Campus Change, a student organization trying to push the administration to add historical context to the physical campus. “They don’t want to hear how diverse students want to be treated.”
After the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville last summer, just an hour's drive from Washington and Lee, students and faculty renewed their push to get the school to confront its ties to slavery and make black students, who comprise just 41 of its 1,827 undergraduates, feel welcome. Much of campus life currently revolves around Lee: The university president lives in Lee House, where Lee himself lived and died; the school’s motto is Lee’s family motto; he and his family (including his horse) are buried on campus; and the school mascot is “The Generals.”
In his letter, Dudley declined to address the majority of the commission's recommendations, including one that would have made Washington and Lee — a long-standing symbol of the Confederate South — the most progressive university to tackle its ties with slavery by hiring a genealogist to find living descendants of the 84 slaves the school owned and providing reparations through a scholarship fund.
Dudley’s office did not respond to several requests for comment.
But not everyone is upset about Dudley’s response. The Virginia Flaggers, a local Confederate group that holds events at Lee Chapel, celebrated on Facebook, writing, “President Dudley and the Board of Trustees flatly rejects committee’s recommendations that would have shut down the Chapel and removed every trace of RE Lee from campus. #winning #GodBlessRELee.”
Rising senior Hayden Daniel, the editor in chief of the conservative school newspaper The Spectator, deemed Dudley’s response “vague,” but said he is thrilled about the decision to keep Lee Chapel the way it is and noted he opposes adding any context about Lee’s role as the chief defender of slavery to the chapel.
“Juxtaposing the two together in that way would reignite the debate even more,” he said. “I completely understand that some people are uncomfortable, but to me and to most people the symbolism of Lee Chapel isn’t necessarily about slavery and the university’s history with slavery.”
The school has made changes to campus after mounting pressure from students twice in recent years. In 2014, the administration removed Confederate battle flags that hung in Lee Chapel, and in 2016, they added a small plaque outside Robinson Hall, which was built by slaves the school owned, featuring a list of their names. For many faculty and students, these changes are not enough.
“I think if we don’t take issues of inclusion more seriously, if we’re not willing to examine how we’re complicit in racism and think about changing our ways we’re just going to keep losing more people,” said English professor Lesley Wheeler. “I had hoped this was an occasion for real change, and it turned out not be.”
“You are going to have a lot of trouble attracting a diverse faculty and student body without dealing with this issue in a more comprehensive way than we have dealt with it so far,” said law school professor John King. “It was a real missed opportunity.”
Some faculty, disappointed the school did not accept the commission's recommendations this year, are now looking for other jobs, two professors said. One of only two black undergraduate assistant professors in the humanities at the time, T.J. Tallie left the school last year over frustrations about its unwillingness to make any more changes that would attract a more diverse student body.
“I left because it is incapable and unwilling to reconcile its white supremacist past and make a more diverse future,” Tallie said. “I don’t want to be someone who hopes that one day it will get better. Ultimately, all of the academic rigor of the institution is not worth being at a place that makes you feel fundamentally alien.”
CORRECTION September 9, 7:15 p.m.: An earlier version of this story misidentified T.J. Tallie's position; he was one of only two black assistant professors in the humanities.
Cover image: Lexington, VA - September 19: A memorial sculpture of Robert E. Lee by Edward Valentine sits in the front of the Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University, Tuesday September 19, 2017. (Photo by Norm Shafer/ For The Washington Post via Getty Images).