Convocation: Engaging in Dialogue

By: Alan Carrillo, 3L

For most law students, September 6th was just another Wednesday in the early weeks of fall classes. For undergraduate students, it was the last day of summer. For the entire Washington and Lee University student body, it was officially the first day of the school year.

As summer rain steadily fell over the Shenandoah Valley, hundreds of students, professors, and administrators traversed the Colonnade to our neighbor, Virginia Military Institute, to celebrate Convocation under the Marshall Center’s roof shelter. Although hundreds of students were noticeably absent, the alternate location slowly filled to capacity as President of the University, Will Dudley called the room to order.

Jonathan Murphy ‘18L attended Convocation because “it is one of the events the University uses to celebrate 3Ls and to communicate the values that represent the school,” especially considering the current conversation on institutional history. “We will have an institutional culture no matter what. It can be something that happens to us or something we are a part of shaping,” Jonathan said.

Roy Abernathy ‘20L and Caleb Fleger ‘20L never attended the convocation ceremony before and were not sure what to expect. Roy was especially impressed that Dr. Danielle Allen was scheduled to give the keynote address. “Dr. Allen has researched and discussed institutional history before,” Roy reflected. “It’s good for the community. It surprised me that the school has taken the initiative to have that conversation.”

Dr. Allen, the Director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University, gave an address entitled, “Democracy 101: We Hold These Truths….” The presentation was based upon her book, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, which firstyear undergraduate students read and discussed with professors in preparation for the event.

“We need, in our country, to recover a conversation about equality,” Dr. Allen said. “We can do that by digging into one of the key resources of our own tradition—The Declaration of Independence.” Using the founding of the United States of America as a backdrop, she identified and discussed character traits we ought to model and habits we should put into practice as we seek to study our University’s institutional history.

Noting the difficult time in our country and that Washington and Lee is at the center of debate on historic symbols, Dr. Allen invited all W&L students to be “democratic authors” on campus. “Commit to proving yourself trustworthy, commit to developing the habits and practices of resilience, commit to including all voices in the conversation and the deliberation,” she encouraged us.

Dr. Allen commanded attendees’ attention when she recommended that Washington and Lee change the way it expresses its history by changing its name. “It would be a change to Chavis, Washington, and Lee—a community that recognizes itself as having been the first in the country to award a degree to an African- American undergraduate,” referring to John Chavis, a historicallyrenowned freeborn black man who fought for the colonies in the American Revolution and eventually graduated from Washington and Lee University, then Washington College. “That is an astonishing inheritance; an astonishing heritage. Lift it up proudly!”

Although some students felt her suggestion for a name change was presumptuous, as it was offered prior to the conversations that will occur on campus and by someone not part of the W&L community, they greatly appreciated the intent of her suggestion. “While I don’t currently support the push for a name change, I appreciated her idea of celebrating Chavis,” Jonathan commented. “That is a phenomenal piece of W&L history that should be featured more prominently at this school.”

To begin this democratic conversation on campus, the Executive Committee of the Student Body (EC) is circulating, among the student body, a resolution asking students to commit to civil discourse as we study and discuss our institutional history.

        The convocation recording is available at: wlu/fall-convocation-2017. The EC’s resolution can be read and signed at student-body-resolution.

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