After 11-month debate, Washington & Lee will not change its name

Washington and Lee University will keep its current name commemorating George Washington and Robert E. Lee.

Plans for $225 million in scholarship funding and 'academic center for the study of Southern race relations' accompanied the announcement.

Despite extensive student activism, Washington and Lee University will retain its current name.

In a 22 to 6 decision, Washington and Lee’s trustees voted to continue using its name while expanding “diversity and inclusion initiatives,” according to a university statement. The vote follows “an 11-month review of the university’s name, symbols and other issues related to its history and campus environment.”

Washington and Lee is named for President George Washington, whose stock donation in 1796 saved the school’s finances, and Robert E. Lee, a Confederate general who led the university for five years after the Civil War. Both Washington and Lee owned slaves.

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Although the school decided that “continuity is the best path forward” with respect to its name, it announced several diversity initiatives. These plans include $225 million for “scholarships, curricular development, and student support,” the creation of “a new academic center for the study of Southern race relations, culture, and politics,” changes to “campus symbols and buildings” that include the renaming of Lee Chapel, and forming “a board committee on diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

“We are confident that W&L will emerge stronger as a result of our active engagement on these issues, the work we have done together, and the actions and commitments we are taking,” said the board in the statement. “We look forward to continuing to engage our community on these critical issues as we execute on our Strategic Plan in support of our mission.”

Elizabeth Hertzberg, a Washington & Lee undergraduate student who has been counter-organizing against the name change, praised the decision while also expressing concerns over the university's accompanying plans. 

"I absolutely believe keeping the name was the right decision for the university given that there’s no evidence changing it would diversify or “improve” our student body," Hertzberg said to Campus Reform. "While I’m disappointed that Lee Chapel will be changed... I think the Board of Trustees is doing what they can to please the most people."

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The board also acknowledged that “that the association with its namesakes can be painful to those who continue to experience racism,” but also recognized that the school’s name is “associated with an exceptional liberal arts and legal education and common experiences and values that are independent of the personal histories of the two men.”

Campus Reform reached out to Washington and Lee for comment; this article will be updated accordingly.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @BenZeisloft