Between Reverence and Respect: Students Support “L” in W&L, but Question Legacy

Pie Chart

98 percent of W&L Law Students support keeping “Lee” in the school name.

By: Danielle Phillips, 2L

Staff Writer

The devastating events which occurred in Charlottesville ignited a nationwide discussion on the appropriate place for historical figures with controversial pasts. Universities and schools that once bore the names of Confederate Soldiers are in the process of being renamed. The Dallas Independent School District is changing the names of four schools honoring Confederate General Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, William L. Cabell, and Albert Sidney Johnson. The names of 21 other schools are still for debate.

This abrupt shift nationwide sparked discussions on our campus due to the University’s association with Robert E. Lee, the General of the Confederate States of America. The University lists Lee’s significant contribution to the University as the reason the University was renamed in his honor.

Lee was deeply involved in the University after the close of the Civil War. He became president of Washington and Lee University in 1865. Lee also incorporated the Lexington Law School into the college, encouraged the development of the sciences, and instituted programs in business instruction that led to the founding of the School of Commerce in 1906. Additionally, Lee inaugurated courses in journalism, which developed by 1925 into the School of Journalism. These courses in business and journalism were the first offered in colleges in the U.S.

He also established an informal code of conduct that led to today’s Honor System. Lee’s contributions to the University cannot be overlooked, but many of his beliefs and his involvement in the Civil War, conflict with the value of his contribution. Lee was adamantly against giving the right to vote to African Americans. In his testimony to Congress’s Joint Committee on Reconstruction in 1866, Lee stated: “My own opinion is that at this time they cannot vote intelligently and that giving them the right to suffrage would open the door to a great deal of demagoguism and lead to embarrassments in many ways.” Later, when he was asked if “the State of Virginia is absolutely injured and its future impaired by the presence of the black population there?” Lee responded, “I think it is.”

Lee was aware of the evils of slavery. In a letter to his wife, Lee stated: “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages[…].The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.”

A school-wide interview of 179 students was conducted to discover and encapsulate law students’ views on our school’s former president and whether his association with the school, through the use of his name, should be continued. The views of students across the Law school on this topic were varied and reflected the plurality and deep-rooted diversity of opinions at Washington and Lee.

Law students possessed an overwhelming support for our schools former president, with close to 96% of law students interviewed, were against the removal of Lee’s name for a litany of reasons.

Many students expressed that the university has a strong reputation. Claire Flowers, 2L, addressed this concern in her interview when stating, “My reasons for being against the name are somewhat self-motivated because I’d like to be able to say I graduated from Washington and Lee School of Law, a school with an excellent nationwide reputation. I interviewed with several alumni and our connection to firms because of our name is very strong.” Bruce Kennedy, 2L, also voiced his opposition to the removal of the name by stating, “I am not in favor of changing the name. He has a done a lot for the school and when he accepted the presidency it was to aid in the restoration of peace, harmony, and unity. It’s a shame to use this as a symbol for hatred.”

Another 2L who requested to be quoted anonymously stated, “Lee’s legacy of slavery and his legacy at the school are mutually exclusive and can be separated. They’re entirely different things.” When this individual was asked if the name could be a deterrent to the diversity interest of the university they stated, “If you choose not to go to a law school because you’re sensitive to its name then you should rethink your decision to be an attorney.”

Sarah Telle, 2L, also added to the discussion by stating, “I am against the name change because history is very complicated. I think you have to understand that people are not just some of the decisions they made. We must look at why Lee became president of Washington and Lee University and why he decided to lay down the sword, and if those motives are valid—you need to look at those.”  When asked if naming the school after Lee has similarities to naming a university after an infamous Nazi figure such as Hitler, Telle stated, “I think that Hitler and other leaders in Nazi Germany are truly evil. I do not say that lightly. I would not say Robert E. Lee or other leaders of the Confederacy were evil. I think they were misguided had misplaced loyalties and were plain wrong, but not evil.”

Telle added powerfully that, “It is so easy to condemn the southerners for owning slaves, but it is a question of whether something at the time was wrong. History must have context. In fifty years, we will fall short of what we were expecting ourselves to be. I just think it behooves us to be wary of claiming moral superiority on human history and human nature. It is better to proceed with caution, humility, and understanding.”

There were some students who were concerned about this powerful symbol and its effect on future students. Matt Donahue, 3L, addressed the issue by stating, “If I had a magic wand. I could do just whatever I wanted, for me, I would change the name. I think there are complicated ethical problems with having your school named after the Commander of Confederate States of America. I don’t think that the establishment of a University outweighs the horror of slavery. I don’t think we should erase anyone for this institution. You need to know there was a Hitler to know not to be him. Historical figures change over time, historical figures are simplified over time–they either stand for pure good or pure evil.”

Donahue went on to add that the keeping of the name will potentially challenge and increase the plurality of opinions and discussion on campus when stating, “One of the moral successes was including every type of religious belief and non-religious belief. Where we have a very strong belief in religious tolerance there is still much progress needed for gender and racial tolerance. The right answer is not to double down on the culture this university has always had, but to increase the number of people who have different thoughts, both people who love and hate the name.”

Although there was clear support for letting the name remain on the school, several students were in favor of removing the name and voiced strong concerns. Charu Kulkarni,3L, vividly expressed her support for the removal of the name by stating, “For me, it comes down to one thing […] it really comes down to the cause that he stood for. The cause that he stood for was slavery. I think that as long as we have that name we make a statement or a signal to the general population about the people that we elevate, and admire and revere and the causes that we admire and revere. And as I said he stood for the cause of slavery and if we have his name on our University and our resumes, at the very least we have to contend with the fact that we are representing that cause or at least representing the celebration of the cause. “

When Kulkarni was asked about his contributions to the university, specifically the law school’s strong Honor Code, Kulkarni stated, “how could there be an honor code created by a man that owned humans as chattel. You talk about stealing, under the Honor Code, you stole that person’s humanity. You turned them into a chattel to be whipped and beaten day in day out.”

Another law student Doug Malenfant, 2L, voiced equally passionate concerns: “I would be for the name change […]. I don’t think that the Lee aspect is something to be proud of. Anything positive that did come from Lee to the school, like the Honor Code is overshadowed by the negative, such as his support of slavery […]. History belongs in the museum.”

When asked about the similarities or differences between having prominent Nazi figures attached to universities and Lee’s association with the school Lauren Cassel, 2L, stated: “I don’t see how you can make that distinction. Just because one was privatized genocide, does not mean it was not wrong.”

Another 2L agreed with this sentiment stating, “I understand the tradition argument others are likely making. But that is like arguing that we should not change the name because Robert E. Lee stood for states’ rights, yes, but it was the states right to own and sell people.” This individual went on to say, “how can we not pay attention to the potentially devastating effect the name and blatant racism in our community have on our fellow classmates. It’s sickening hearing people, outwardly deny that the name should be concerning.”

In conclusion, these interviews demonstrate that drawing the line between reverence and respect is a difficult and daunting task that invokes beliefs, attitudes, and discussion that will have a profound impact and continue to shape the missions and values Washington and Lee strives to uphold.

Categories: Features