After much discussion and debate –and too much national attention — the Board of Trustees of Washington & Lee University voted not to change the name of this small, private, liberal arts institution of higher education. An important qualifier, explained in a letter quickly released by W&L President Will Dudley, is that the University is redoubling its efforts in and attention to inclusion, equity, diversity, quality and ethics, while also maintaining its focus on excellence in higher education.
Over the last several weeks, I have had the opportunity to read, hear, and discuss a variety of responses to the Board’s decision. These exchanges have been largely civil, if not always in agreement. What has impressed me most, however, is the deep and lasting impact the W&L experience has had on those sharing their experiences or association with the University, whether as a student, a faculty member, a parent, an alumnus/ae, or a visitor. As a proud graduate of W&L and also as the proud parent of a graduate, I have followed the University’s continued evolution for more than four decades, and like many others, I followed the debate about the possible renaming closely. President Dudley summed up the basis for the ultimate decision as follows: “The name ‘Washington & Lee’ does not define us. We define it.”
Spot-on or cop-out? To my way of thinking, President Dudley is right to argue that in the case of the name, Washington & Lee University, we need to look forward, not back.
Of course, the legacy of Robert E. Lee — his leadership of the Confederate Army against the United States and his advocacy for the perpetuation of slavery — cannot be excused. What Lee did at W&L, however, was to establish a tradition of honor and ethical honesty, not to mention a strong liberal arts education, that has far outlived him. I tend to be an optimist and a firm believer that change is beneficial. In my lifetime, I’ve seen W&L steadily and progressively transformed by dramatic changes for the better in its admissions policies, its campus culture and its continued commitment to academic innovation. Now, President Dudley and the Board of Trustees have the opportunity to continue the University’s progress by reaffirming, in deeds as well as in words, the values of civility, integrity, diversity and equity to a community, a country and a world sorely in need of them all.
Matthew LaMotte recently retired after a long career in private secondary education, including Saints Peter and Paul School in Easton.