After much conversation, pushback and debate, the Board of Trustees at Washington and Lee University has voted not to change the institution’s name. The latter part of the name honors Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate States Army and former president of the institution. The board voted 22 to 6.
The name had been the topic of serious conversation at Washington and Lee for the past few years, and advocacy for a change was redoubled after the murder of George Floyd. In the wake of national protests, many colleges and universities re-evaluated their institutions and made changes to symbols and traditions.
The board took up the issue last July and said it would consider and vote on the decision this month.
While the name will remain, other changes will be made, the board announced. The university seeks to raise $160 million to achieve need-blind admissions. Lee Chapel, where the former president is buried, will be renamed University Chapel and altered to separate the auditorium from the crypt and a memorial sculpture of Lee. University diplomas will be changed to remove images of Lee and George Washington, the university’s other namesake. The institution will also discontinue Founders’ Day, a holiday celebrated on Lee’s birthday. It will establish an academic center for the study of Southern race relations.
“The association with our namesakes can be painful to those who continue to experience racism, especially to African Americans, and is seen by some as an impediment to our efforts to attract and support a diverse community,” the board wrote in its announcement. “For others, our name is an appropriate recognition of the specific and significant contributions each man made directly to our institution.”
The board said it repudiated racism and regrets the university’s past veneration of the Confederacy and its role in perpetuating Lost Cause mythology. In 2014, the university took down Confederate flags on display in the chapel. In 2016, it stopped allowing outside Confederate veterans’ groups to hold events in the space. In 2018, a university panel advocated for a number of other changes to symbols and traditions at the university but declined to endorse a name change.