W&L Commission Calls for Changing the Way School Presents Its History

By: 
Darryl Woodson

May 20 - Washington and Lee University President Will Dudley on Friday released the report from the Commission on Institutional History and Community that he had impaneled last August to study how the school represents its history.

Among its 31 recommendations, the commission urged that the school de-emphasize its connection with Robert E. Lee and give more emphasis to other parts of its history. The commission would like to see the name of Lee Chapel changed and no longer be the site of university functions. It would also lke to see the Lee House and the Lee-Jackson House renamed, along with Robinson Hall, which is named for a Rockbridge County plantation owner whose bequest to then Washington College included slaves who were later sold by the university. The commission did not recommend changing the name of the university or its sports teams from the Generals.

The commission also called for the approval of the law school's proposal for the creation of a Center on Civil Rights and Racial Justice and to explore ways of encouraging students from traditionally underrepresented groups to attend law school.

All 31 of the recommendations are printed here. The full report can be found on the W&L website under the news section in which Dudley is addressing the university community about the report. In his message, he says that the recommendations from the commission are just that at this point and that he will consider the recommendations in consultation with the board of trustees, faculty, staff, students and alumni in the coming months.

Here are the recommendations:

 

 

In President Dudley's message announcing the membership of the Commission on Institutional History and Community, he called for the commission to:

  1. Examine how our history — and the ways that we teach, discuss and represent it — shapes our community.
  2. Create various opportunities to engage in conversation with all corners of the community.
  3. Set a national example by demonstrating how the divisive issues can be addressed thoughtfully and effectively.

With this charge as the benchmark for the report, the commission has engaged with students, staff, faculty and alumni. The university community has asked for transparency in the examination of its history and recommendations for change.

Recommendation No. 1:

Release the commission's report in full to the university community and post on the website.

Recommendation No. 2:

Incorporate the university's history into its orientation program and its curriculum as a tool for examining society's challenges and better preparing graduates to face those challenges. There must be a focus on the university's 18th- and 19th-century history, including the facts about George Washington's and Robert E. Lee's involvements with the university. The university's 20th- and 21st-century history must also be part of the canon, especially its evolution as a premier liberal arts institution and its mission to prepare students for "engaged citizenship in a global and diverse society."331

Possible mechanisms for delivering the university's history to the student population:

  • Compile a packet that contains a historical overview. The Office of Admissions will send it to students when they decide to attend W&L or will provide it to students once they arrive on campus. The packet will contain key elements of the university's historical narrative and copies of important primary-source documents. Small-group discussions about the contents of the packet could take place throughout the first-year experience. During Orientation Week, include programming that introduces W&L's history and makes use of information from Special Collections.
  • Require each undergraduate student to take a seminar that explores W&L history, including the involvement of the namesakes, the contribution of enslaved persons, the role of W&L in the creation and dissemination of the Lost Cause narrative, the training of soldiers on campus, and the impact of our graduates on the institution and the world. The goal would be neither to mask nor to bash the university's history, but rather to tell the full story, confident that the university's positive contributions to society far outweigh its shortcomings. Alternatively, encourage faculty to offer more courses about W&L history, such as race and slavery in Rockbridge County, perhaps modeled on Professor Theodore DeLaney's current course. In the School of Law, offer a one-credit course focused on W&L and its connection to the history of civil rights and racial justice; the course would not be required, but would be open to second- and third-year law students as well as undergraduate students in the Legal Studies Program.
  • During Spring Term, foster campus unity by selecting a topic or issue that the entire community explores and discusses, whether in multiple class offerings that address the topic from different angles; a speaker series that highlights different aspects of the issue; a reading club that examines the issue; or a staged public debate related to the topic.
  • Digital Humanities Project: Build an active, developing database for articles, bibliographies and archival sources related to the history of the university and the people who played a role in its development.
  • Create an additional, required, extended orientation meeting for first-year law students to introduce the entering class to the history of the university and its impact on the campus community. Following the format of the Virginia State Bar Law School Professionalism Program, provide a lecture for the whole class and then break out into discussion groups.
  • Celebrate the first month of the new Supreme Court term (October) at the School of Law by offering a four-week series of events and speakers in Lewis Hall on aspects of university history.

To state the obvious, alumni are important to the university. But, they are also important to how we tell our story. W&L is among a handful of schools that have almost no local students (although those that we do have are generally exceptional). Unlike most schools, prospective students do not encounter W&L through local news coverage, interaction with students, or occasional visits throughout high school. W&L is a destination, and most prospective students do not visit W&L until they are looking at colleges. As a result, many/most students' first interaction with W&L is with alumni from their hometown. So, it is important that alumni know our history.

Recommendation No. 3:

Create opportunities for alumni to learn the full history of W&L through programs at chapter meetings, and produce video of selected footage. Knowledgeable speakers would cover a range of topics, and items from Special Collections would help tell the story. Educating W&L graduates is important. About 70 percent of incoming students have contact with graduates before or during the applications process; these alumni are well positioned to pass along accurate information about the school's background and trajectory. Educational opportunities, devised by the Alumni Office and Special Collections, could be evening programs with several speakers, each covering a time period or facet of W&L history. 

Recommendation No. 4:

Establish the fall Convocation as University Day. This will celebrate the opening of the academic year; explore the past, present and future of the university; and reflect on the university's core values and ideals. University Day would replace Founders Day in January, which is currently tied to the university's namesakes rather than the full history of the university. The Omicron Delta Kappa Convocation would remain in January.

Recommendation No. 5:

Use existing and future research generated from course work, exhibitions and lectures to update university web pages and further reflect university history. Pages that would benefit from updates include History & Traditions FAQ for the First-Year Experience; History and Traditions web pages under About W&L; and History of Washington and Lee's Presidents.

Recommendation No. 6:

Rename Robinson Hall, as further explained in Part II, Section V of the report.

Recommendation No. 7:

Improve and expand recognition of the contributions to the university of enslaved persons, including those in the Robinson bequest. Improve the space that commemorates those in the Robinson bequest and erect a more prominent monument than the existing marker.

Recommendation No. 8:

Invest in continued research to explore contributions of enslaved persons to the university. Hire a genealogist to complete the research on descendants of the Robinson enslaved persons. In addition, hire a two-year post-doctoral fellow to complete additional research, including the history of enslaved persons who were not part of the Robinson bequest and the 20th-century black experience at W&L.

Washington and Lee University recently erected a marker to commemorate those enslaved people it received through a bequest from trustee John Robinson in 1826, yet, except for the work of Adam Lewis, knowledge of their lives in Mississippi and their descendants is mostly unknown. Information about other enslaved people in Washington College history is also unknown. Builder John Jordan used enslaved laborers when he built Washington Hall, and he purchased a few of the Robinson slaves. President Henry Ruffner, an ardent advocate of colonization who disliked slavery, was also a slaveholder, and other heads of Washington College more than likely owned enslaved people. Knowledge about how Washington College may have benefitted from the labor and sale of enslaved people remains incomplete.

Recommendation No. 9:

Take action when the genealogist identifies descendants of enslaved persons owned by Washington College. It is premature to be prescriptive or comprehensive on what follows this research, but options for future consideration include: Establishing an education fund to support a descendant's secondary or collegiate education, payable to a school to be attended by the descendant; creating an annual community project in the region settled by the descendants, similar to the Lexington programs now assisted by the university's Community Grants Program; hosting a gathering on campus that provides an opportunity for descendants to meet and learn more about the results of the genealogist's and post-doctoral fellow's research; and sponsoring a series of lectures and activities on reconciliation and memorialization, with topics including the trans-Atlantic slave trade, enslavement, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the civil rights era, and the connection to a contemporary and intersectional analysis of race, gender, sexuality, economic inequality and equity.

Recommendation No. 10:

To ensure the credibility of the Honor System and to follow the concerns of students, faculty and staff presented in outreach sessions, relocate the honor orientation and the signing of the Honor Book from the chapel, and give references to Lee in the White Book a more proportionate place in the text.

Throughout the year the commission has researched our history and searched to find truth among many of the myths surrounding our 270-year old institution. One of the most revered traditions at Washington and Lee is our Honor System. Any breach of the community's trust is considered an honor violation. This creates a community with an uncommon assignment of trust in its members.

One of the myths surrounding the Honor System is that Robert E. Lee created the system during his tenure as president. As seen in the university documents in Special Collections, this myth is inaccurate. The Honor System dates back to the 1840s, if not earlier, and students gained control of the Honor System in the late 1850s. Lee did not become president until 1865. It is undeniable that Lee influenced the student body and the administration of the Honor System with his ideals and demeanor. As acknowledged in the White Book, this is true of all presidents and generations of students at W&L. However, the current portrayal of the Honor System exaggerates Lee's impact on the system.

Most students' education of the Honor System begins on their first tour of W&L, when tour guides explain the tradition, often outside of Lee Chapel. Although this is typically a brief overview, stories of Lee's role in the Honor System differ. The next instance that students learn more about the Honor System is during Honor Orientation in their first week on campus. At the conclusion of Honor Orientation, students sign the Honor Book and are thereby bound by the Honor System. Undergraduate students attend Honor Orientation and sign the Honor Book in Lee Chapel. Law students typically attend Honor Orientation at the Law School and sign the Honor Book in Lee Chapel.

Throughout students' time at W&L, their education on the Honor System comes from the EC and the White Book. The White Book is described as "the governing document for all honor system procedure and philosophy" on the Executive Committee's webpage. The White Book begins its introduction to the Honor System with a discussion of Lee. While it does not state that Lee created the Honor System, it is heavily implied - Lee is the only person mentioned by name in the book. Students are also exposed to the Honor System when an open hearing is conducted. When a student is found guilty of an honor violation in a closed hearing, they have the option to appeal the decision to an open hearing, held in Lee Chapel. A jury of students determine whether the conduct constitutes an honor violation and the entire student body is invited to attend the hearing.

Throughout outreach, students noted a disconnect between the values and the purpose of the Honor System and the exaggeration of Lee's impact on the Honor System. The W&L community is built on civility, honor and integrity, yet, the system promoting these ideals also promotes an inaccurate myth. As we work to make W&L a home to all students, we must reconcile that Lee is a complicated historical figure. Students have stated feeling uncomfortable or undervalued when mandated to admire his tenure at W&L. Beyond the historical inaccuracy, in working to orient students, faculty and staff to our community of trust, our presentation of our Honor System disregards the discomfort and disorientation felt by many of the members of our community. Moving the location of honor orientation and open hearings as well as distancing Lee from a system that existed at Washington College prior to his arrival, we hope to preserve and protect one of our sacred traditions.

Recommendation No. 11:

Refer to Robert E. Lee as "President Lee" rather than "General Lee," including in formal documents, on the website, and the like.

Recommendation No. 12:

Implement proposals from strategic planning, including the Multicultural Center; a cluster-hiring initiative for faculty; a Diversity Cabinet; additional financial resources dedicated to recruiting and enrolling diverse undergraduate and law students; and need-blind admissions.

Recommendation No. 13:

Explore opportunities to encourage students from traditionally underrepresented groups to pursue a career in the legal profession beginning with a legal education at W&L, and fund a position for a law student diversity and inclusion (LDI) counselor.

Some suggestions as to ways the Law School can accomplish the first part of this plan include:

  1. Partner with the Law School Admission Council (LSAC) and create a four-week PLUS program during the summer after the conclusion of the undergraduate Spring Term.
  2. Apply for an LSAC Diversity Matters Grant to fund a four-day course during the law school fall break targeted at, but not restricted to, traditionally underrepresented groups.
  3. Initiate a program similar to either of the two above without partnering with LSAC.

The law diversity and inclusion (LDI) counselor would be responsible for the new recruitment and education program run by admissions. The counselor would also coordinate with Student Affairs to serve as a resource for law students from traditionally underrepresented groups. The LDI counselor could also work with the law school representative on the Diversity Cabinet to ensure that underrepresented students feel supported and welcome in the W&L Law community.

Recommendation No. 14:

Explore the establishment of an exchange program with Minority Serving Institutions and consider giving incentives to the partner institutions to encourage their participation.

Washington and Lee University seeks opportunities to ensure that the student body and faculty are racially and ethnically diverse. One such way to advance this goal is a partnership that formalizes an exchange program with Minority Serving Institutions. Within this group of institutions, many Historically Black Colleges and Universities that award bachelor degrees are within driving distance of Lexington, with a large number in Virginia and the Carolinas.

These schools present a fertile opportunity to establish reciprocal study programs whereby students of color (preferably in groups of two or more from an individual college) would spend a semester or year on campus at Washington and Lee while a similar opportunity would be made available to W&L students to attend a semester or year there. The benefits should be significant and the donor schools would still receive tuition income. A similar concept could be extended for faculty exchange programs.

Recommendation No. 15:

Approve the School of Law's proposal for creation of a Center on Civil Rights and Racial Justice. This will be an interdisciplinary center, involving students and faculty from the College, the Williams School, and the School of Law. On a campus that tends to look to the past for its ideals and values, this center will be forward-looking in the sense of seeking new ways of thinking about justice and equality in the 21st century. Participants will take part in cutting-edge research, policy advocacy, other forms of writing, and civil rights litigation in Virginia and around the country. The center's work will engage the expertise of various disciplines, taking a strong liberal arts approach to thinking collaboratively and responding imaginatively to contemporary issues. Its function in the educational program of the university will be to teach and to allow reflection on the modern justice system, the role of the courts, human rights, and the intersection of political, social, and legal thought.

Recommendation No. 16:

Expand the university's knowledge of the 20th-century experience of black students and faculty at Washington and Lee. There are no individual histories of the young men who integrated the university. The first black students - Leslie Smith ‘69L, Linwood Smothers '72 and Walter Blake '72 - have already died, as have Smith's brother, Bobby Smith '74, John White '74, John Evans '76, Ernest L. Freeman III '75, Donald A. Willis '75L, Rodney Hubbard '74, Gary Avery '74 and Phillip Hutcheson '74. It is vital to collect oral histories of black alumni who are still alive and willing to be interviewed.

Recommendation No. 17:

Create a Summer Liberal Arts Institute to provide an interdisciplinary summer experience for middle school or high school students (whether from Lexington, elsewhere in the country, or abroad) to visit, engage and learn about the best that the university has to offer.

The Summer Liberal Arts Institute would offer sessions on leadership development, guest lectures from faculty and staff, and allow students to learn about programs such as those provided by the Office of Community-Based learning. The program would be targeted for underrepresented students, but would not limit participation to these groups. Many peer institutions have pre-college programs and W&L can provide a distinct experience. This program reflects the goals of the recently selected Quality Enhancement Plan.

Recommendation No. 18:

Convert Lee Chapel and Museum building into a museum, which would serve as a teaching environment with a well-appointed classroom, offices, and state-of-the-art exhibition space. The University Museum332 would engage academic departments and programs such as University Collections, campus galleries and display spaces, as well as departments and programs that readily use and teach with material culture, such as History, Classics, Art and Art History, Anthropology, Archaeology, Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies. The new University Museum would no longer hold any university functions.

Recommendation No. 19:

Create a new community-convening space for university events, particularly for occasions like Orientation, Founders Day Convocation (or, as proposed, University Day), induction ceremonies, and other major occasions. The new space should be welcoming to all members of the university.

Recommendation No. 20:

Move the management of Lee Chapel (University Museum) and University Collections from the Office of University Advancement to the Office of the Provost to underscore the academic nature of the new museum.

Recommendation No. 21:

Incorporate the newly created University Museum into the university's larger network of galleries, exhibition spaces, and archival resources (Watson Pavilion, Reeves Center, Staniar Gallery, Williams Galleries, Special Collections, University Collections, and others), thereby creating an organized and interconnected University Museum System.

Recommendation No. 22:

Hire a director for the new University Museum System. This person would need to have an advanced degree and/or considerable work experience with curation, preservation and display practices, as well as collection documentation and maintenance. The director would also be responsible for creating a coherent calendar of programming that would link and support all of the display spaces and exhibitions across campus. The new director would oversee docent training, which would be a critical component to a successful museum, and website and social media presence. Finally, this position would interface with campus galleries, University Collections of Art and History, and Special Collections, as well as departments and programs that readily use and teach with material culture, such as History, Classics, Art and Art History, Anthropology, Archaeology, Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies.

Recommendation No. 23:

Convert an existing campus space (such as Evans Hall) into a functional venue that can host first-year orientation and other mandatory events.

For so long as university events are held at Lee Chapel, we recommend that modifications, some of which would be temporary, be made to the chapel in order to minimize its role as a shrine to Lee and the Confederacy.

  1. Temporarily remove the Book of Remembrance memorializing the Confederate dead from the entryway.
  2. Temporarily remove the plaque in the entry honoring the Confederate Soldiers of the Rockbridge Regiment.*
  3. Temporarily replace the Pine portrait of Lee in Confederate uniform with one of him in civilian dress during his time as president of Washington College
  4. Refinish the fire doors that separate the auditorium and the apse to a quality that is consistent with the rest of the chapel, and that provides a suitable backdrop to the podium area.
  5. Close the fire doors when the chapel is in use.
  6. Remove the directional signage around campus pointing towards Lee Chapel (it is the only building on campus with remote signage).
  7. Discontinue programming at the chapel that celebrates the mythic Lee, particularly events with characters in period costumes and horses that resemble Traveller.
  8. Refer to Lee Chapel as either the chapel or the University Chapel, until such time as it can be repurposed into the University Museum.
  9. Close the gift shop as soon as possible, as the commission does not support commercializing Lee and the Confederacy on W&L's campus.

*If temporary removal of the plaque is not feasible, the commission recommends adopting didactics that will contextualize the commemoration of the Confederate soldiers.

Recommendation No. 24:

Display only portraits of Lee that portray him in civilian attire, not as a Confederate general. Acquire and prominently display portraits - in either 2D or 3D media - that feature individuals who represent the university's complete history.

Recommendation No. 25:

The commission recommends that the university not change its name at this time.

Recommendation No. 26:

The commission recommends that the university not change the name of W&L teams, "the Generals," at this time.

Recommendation No. 27:

Re-name Robinson Hall immediately. The hall's association with slavery at Washington College - i.e., that the Robinson bequest included enslaved persons who labored at the institution until the institution sold them to others - gives special urgency to this proposal.

Recommendation No. 28:

Appoint members of the W&L community to a standing committee to review and recommend the retention, deletion or alteration of the names of campus buildings, programs, departments and other similar entities. The naming committee would establish specific evaluation criteria for the naming or renaming of buildings and spaces. Considerations may include the following principles:

  1. Renaming should be an exceptional event and warranted only if the name is indisputably in conflict with the university's values.
  2. Examination of the standards of the namesake's time and place is relevant.
  3. The building or place should play a substantial role in the life of the W&L community.
  4. Removing the name should not have the effect of erasing history.
  5. Retaining the name should not have the effect of distorting history.

The review process should include:

  1. Historical inquiry and research of the person or space under consideration.
  2. Community engagement to ensure that students, faculty, staff and alumni have opportunities to participate in the process.
  3. Discussion and deliberation by the committee to synthesize research and outreach.
  4. Presentation of recommendations to the university president.

Recommendation No. 29:

The newly formed naming committee consider renaming three campus buildings named for Lee (Lee House, Lee Chapel, and Lee-Jackson House).

Outreach showed that the number of places named for Lee is disproportionate to his contribution and overshadows other individuals who played an important role in the university.

Recommendation No. 30:

Evaluate whether the store should be more balanced and proportionate in merchandising its 19th-century-related products.

Recommendation No. 31:

Construct a guided History Walk to enable all visitors and the university community to learn about the institution's history by moving around the campus and encountering markers and other sources of information about Washington and Lee, not limited to pre-war and Civil War history, but including 20th- and 21st-century information as well.

The commission challenges the implementers of this recommendation to think of new, creative ways for members of the university to encounter the history represented by the physical campus. The mechanisms for creating this History Walk should be engaging and accessible. The commission offers the following ideas for possible elements of the History Walk with the qualification that this list is by no means exhaustive.

  1. Expanding the recognition of people of color and underrepresented groups through historical plaques and markers.
  2. Offering accessible information that provides crucial context for elements of the physical campus that reflect controversial persons or events.
  3. Commission a mural to be featured on a prominent part of campus that reflects W&L's history, paying particular attention to the history of people of color and underrepresented groups on campus. Art History Professor Andrea Lepage has recommended commissioning Judy Baca as the artist for such a mural. Judy Baca is a Chicana artist who specializes in creating-large scale murals that tell untold stories.
  4. Designing a smartphone application that allows people to access the history represented by the physical campus. This app could use GPS location services and include a virtual map of W&L. As people move through campus, they could access information via the app that offers more narrative surrounding the buildings or historical markers that they encounter. Images, text, videos and photographs would be available via web based app.
  5. For example, when someone stands in front of Robinson Hall, they could open their app, click on Robinson Hall on their virtual map, and be presented with a short video that explains the Robinson bequest and the contributions of enslaved persons to the university.
  6. Revise the online virtual tour to be more reflective of the university's history. The current virtual tour could be updated to represent a more complete history of the physical campus. Essentially, the virtual tour could be the web version of the app recommended in item 4.
  7. Train students of history to conduct guided tours through the physical campus that allow for individuals to engage with its history. All W&L students could be required to take this tour. This would be a separate entity from the university admissions tour, but could be offered as a supplemental tour for prospective students who request it.
  8. Include interactive video screens throughout campus that allow people to watch short clips or read more information about the elements of the physical campus.
  9. The history walk would include different modules that would allow the individual to explore various time frames and different themes. These modules would provide a full accounting of the university's involvement with slavery and recognize the contribution of enslaved humans on an equal footing with the contributions of our financial supporters.

 

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