Editor's note: The following story appeared in today's issue of The News-Gazette. However, due to a production error, the final two lines in the story were left out. The complete story follows.
Race-related questions raised by a group of Washington and Lee University law school students earlier this month have prompted the university's president to issue two messages in the past week in which he addresses the students' concerns.
“The questions that some law students have raised are legitimate,” said Dr. Ken Ruscio in a statement released Monday. “Washington and Lee seeks to establish a climate of learning in which we treat all individuals with respect and trust. If even one person thinks that we have not met our aspiration in that regard, we must listen to them and examine why. We are doing so, and we will continue to do so.”
Twelve law school students signed an April 12 letter to W&L's board of trustees in which the students made four “demands” of the university with regard to creating a more welcoming environment on campus for persons of color.
The students are demanding that W&L do the following: 1) recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day by not holding undergraduate classes this day; 2) stop allowing Confederate heritage groups to march on campus with their flags on Lee-Jackson Day and stop allowing them to hold programs in Lee Chapel; 3) remove Confederate flags on display inside Lee Chapel; and 4) apologize for the university's participation in slavery and denounce Robert E. Lee's participation in slavery.
Ruscio stated that these matters “require a wider, deeper conversation that includes members of our community whose voices have not been heard in the various media reports. That includes many of our black students and black alumni, who have shared their individual experiences in our ongoing discussions about these issues throughout this academic year.”
The phrase, “climate of learning,” is worth underscoring, said Ruscio. “Washington and Lee is an educational institution, not a museum and not a historical curiosity. Education – by which I mean education in the deepest sense, with all the foundational features of the liberal arts and sciences, ranging from free and open inquiry, to critical and independent thinking, to a sense of history, philosophy, religion and ethics – is sometimes messy and controversial.”
The fundamental question, he continued, “is whether people with different backgrounds, different experiences and different opinions can address difficult questions and, if not necessarily agree with one another, at least strive, with mutual respect, to better understand each other and to find common ground.”
Ruscio recalled that this past fall he asked a campus group to undertake a comprehensive review of the history of African Americans at W&L. Thus far this group has been operating informally and on a preliminary fashion, he said, but the current discussion might provide an impetus for the group to move forward. “In the end, we will assess that institutional history and provide whatever judgment is warranted.”
As for whether undergraduate classes should be canceled on MLK Day, Ruscio said, “[It's] a fair question, one that rests in the hands of the faculty who determine the academic calendar. Many people are concerned that canceling classes would supplant an eventful week of educational activities with an uneventful three-day weekend. I trust the wisdom of our faculty if they wish to take up the question.”
Ruscio said he would initiate a review of the current language in the university's diversity statement “to be sure that it accurately reflects our commitment to diversity and inclusion and our reasons why. … I firmly believe that inclusion and excellence are inseparable; if we seek excellence, we will necessarily seek inclusion.”
On the display of battle flags of several Confederate regiments near the statue of the recumbent Robert E. Lee inside Lee Chapel, he said, “Too many individuals assume they know which flags are there, why they are there and the history of how they got there. I am piecing the story together for myself and will share my findings with all of you.”
A university committee on inclusiveness and campus climate, established in 2008, is to take up these and other ongoing questions to help W&L formulate additional steps, Ruscio said.
The W&L president noted the university has been “receiving a great deal of advice from many people outside our community. While we will not simply dismiss that advice, these are matters for us to decide.”