I was at Washington and Lee 40 years ago for a cup of coffee, as they say in baseball speak. One season.
But I’ve watched with great interest the convulsions that the school has endured dealing with its identity.
Washington and Lee University is a private liberal arts university in Lexington, Virginia. It was established in 1749 as Augusta Academy and later renamed Liberty Hall Academy. After surviving the Civil War, its trustees invited former Confederate General Robert E. Lee to serve as president of the school following the war. Some would say under Lee’s leadership, the college took important steps toward its future status as a university. Others would say he outright saved the place. Today, Washington and Lee is nationally recognized as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the United States. For me, the mere mention of my moment at W&L is literally a game changer in social situations in the South.
But it seems not that simple.
Faculty members voted last July to remove Lee’s name from the school. However, after surveying students, parents, staff and alumni, the university found deep divisions over the name among the 14,000 responses on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion on campus. In March 2021, roughly 400 students walked out of class to protest the school’s affiliation with Lee. A month later, 200 students and faculty gathered on campus to demand the removal of Lee’s name. The board of trustees has the authority to make that happen, but has chosen not to, up to now.
Things seemed to quiet down. Until…
…last week, the Conservative speaker Matt Walsh was invited, then postponed his visit to Washington and Lee University due to “security concerns” in Nashville, where he resides, and “threats” against his family. Walsh has been touring campuses across the US to promote his documentary What is a Woman?, which has sparked controversy at Washington and Lee. A petition to “prevent” him from speaking garnered over 600 signatures. President William Dudley responded by stating the university would permit recognized student organizations to invite speakers of their choice. It doesn’t seem to be the end of it.
From my layman research, I have deep reverence for Lee as general, a leader and an educator. He had faults, but they don’t sound unique in his time.
I hope civility returns to Lexington before the Colonnade is ripped to shreds.