Washington and Lee University Faces Potential Name Change

Washington and Lee University Faces Potential Name Change
portrait of Dean Golembeski
By Dean Golembeski

Published on June 3, 2021

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After months of deliberation, Washington and Lee University will announce this month whether it plans to change its name in response to demands made by students, faculty, and others who view its connections to Confederate General Robert E. Lee as racist and divisive.

The Board of Trustees' decision comes almost a year after a special committee was created to consider the school's ties to Lee.

"As always, we seek to act in the university's best interests, and the multitude of considerations before us demand that we take the time necessary to make our best judgments," Mike McAlevey, rector for the Board of Trustees, recently wrote in an email to the campus community.

"We expect to reach and announce our conclusions in June," McAlevey added.

Charlottesville Rally, Floyd's Murder Spur Calls for Change

Located in Lexington, Virginia, W&L is often ranked as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. But its ties to both Lee and George Washington have proved problematic for years.

The campus has experienced a rise in petitions and protests, including a walkout in March.

Pressure on the university to make changes increased after the 2017 Unite the Right rally in nearby Charlottesville and the widespread protests following George Floyd's murder by a police officer.

Since then, the campus has experienced a rise in petitions and protests, including a walkout in March, in which 400 students left class to show their support for removing Lee's name.

Lee served as president of W&L for five years, joining the college just four months after his Confederate troops surrendered at Appomattox. Upon his death in 1870, the school changed its name from Washington College to Washington and Lee University. Lee's crypt remains on the campus at Lee Chapel.

Groups Lobby Trustees to Remove, Preserve Lee's Name

Among those pushing to remove Lee's name from the university are members of the group Not Unmindful, which consists of alumni, students, and faculty.

On its website, the group states, "Lee is divisive, not unifying. An honest examination reveals that the university's perceptions of Lee as educator and healer have been clouded by apologist sentiments and misinformation; to the rest of the world, he will always be a Confederate general and symbol of white supremacy."

Meanwhile, those opposing a name change include a group of "concerned parents" who wrote an open letter to the Board of Trustees in early May.

The name-change movement is part of a bigger push for W&L and other institutions to become more inclusive, to embrace diversity, and to reckon with their racist histories.

"We realize that many institutions are feeling enormous pressure to sanitize their histories, but they do so at the peril of erasing what makes their character unique. Don't let this happen to Washington and Lee," the letter reads.

The name-change movement is part of a bigger push for W&L and other institutions to become more inclusive, to embrace diversity, and to reckon with their racist histories. Common changes sought by students and activists include the renaming of buildings and the removal of Confederate and racist iconography.

W&L has already made some changes, such as taking down Confederate flags and canceling campus visits from Confederate groups.

University President Will Dudley maintains a list of what the university has done or plans to do, from institutional commitments to recruiting and student support.

Not the First Name Change for W&L

Although the Washington and Lee name has been in place for more than 150 years, the university is not new to name changes. Founded as Augusta Academy in 1749, the school was renamed Liberty Hall Academy just 27 years later in 1776.

When then-President Washington gave the school 100 shares of James River Canal Company stock in 1796, it changed its name again, this time to Washington Academy. Seventeen years later, the institution underwent yet another name change to Washington College.


Feature Image: Travel_Bug / iStock / Getty Images Plus

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