The culture wars are raging undiminished at Washington & Lee University, where the university community is struggling over the name of an institution honoring a former Civil War general and a slaveholder. On June 23, President Will Dudley laid out his administration’s priorities to promote diversity and inclusion. Building on the university’s success in recruiting “domestic students of color” — up 50% since 2016 — and increasing tenure-track hires of “faculty of color” — by 45% over the past four years, he has laid out a new slew of initiatives.
You can read his full letter here. Meanwhile, more than 100 W&L professors called last week for dropping Lee from the university’s name.
What you can’t read on the W&L website is the response of many W&L alumni. Some of those responses are circulating in email chains. I reproduce four of them here for the benefit of those who might not otherwise see them.
Response from Kazimierz J. Herchold, Class of ’68
Subject: A Binary Choice
Dear President Dudley and Washington & Lee Trustees:
With respect, you and the Board completely misunderstand the situation which confronts you. Based on your latest memorandum, you believe that a series of concessions, appeals to civility and rational discussion, as well as pay offs involving faculty hires and financial giveaways to students of color, will somehow defuse the looming conflagration.
Unfortunately, you face a binary choice: capitulation (either in an accelerating cadence to constantly escalating demands, or immediately, on the premise that a quick surrender may save most of the physical plant, excepting statues of course). Or, you can draw the line, and muster the courage and fortitude to declare that faculty, administration, and students who find the place and its history abhorrent can and should leave immediately. Presumably, the faculty and students who consider the University so discomforting are there only because they were unable to secure better or more lucrative placements. You get what you pay for, and you have far too many mercenaries and careerist opportunists to quote their hero, Lenin. I’m reminded of a recent Rhodes scholar who waited until he had graduated and had benefited from fulsome financial aid before penning an op-ed castigating the University. He will no doubt wait until he finishes at Oxford and exhausts his Rhodes funding before embarking on a spree against Cecil Rhodes. That’s what opportunists do. W&L has bought and brought far too many of them in your quest to change the place. So instead, you might consider hiring and admitting people who want to be there.
The middle ground which you seek to plow will never mollify the faculty Jacobins and their fellow travelers, nor sate the mob. And it won’t save you or the storied institution you lead. History repeats, and revolutions always devour those perceived as weak. You won’t avoid the confrontation in any case, so why not stand your ground and declare that there will be no further concessions, no navel gazing about portraits on diplomas, and no name change. Stand for diversity of thought, not just race or gender. Reassert the Chicago principles which you profess to support. Embrace the Western canon, not only revisionist history and victimology. There will be hell to pay, but prevail you will, if you resist confusing pandering with leadership. And you will have the robust support of an alumni cohort which is not ashamed of W&L and which does not buy the narrative about systemic racism nor embraces the corruption of conformity of thought and expression.
So, you and the Board have a binary choice; you can preside over the “systemic” and systematic destruction of an institution which has served the country with distinction for 270 years, or you can preserve it, while wholeheartedly disavowing the excrescences which have infested our academic institutions. Diversity and inclusion by all means, but real diversity of thought and expression rather than the warped Orwellian perversion of those terms which has been foisted on all of us.
Whatever choice you and the Board make, opprobrium will be heaped upon you. But there’s a difference in the nature of that opprobrium. Opprobrium for the steadfast and the brave, or opprobrium for the craven and cowardly? I wish you luck, but it’s backbone you need.
Non Incautus Futuri,
Kazimierz J. Herchold, ’68
Response from Allen R. Gillespie, Class of ’95
Dear President Dudley:
You recently wrote that you and the board are “eager to hear your perspectives on the university, recent national events, and issues of race and their implications for W&L.” I trust that is true, but I fear that it is not. However, I will take you at your word and share my perspectives. In general, I find the various initiatives, plans, and next steps laid out in the Strategic Plan and in the Diversity and Inclusion initiatives are well considered and appropriate. I specifically applaud the focus on “need-blind admissions,” “the full W&L experience” and “Institutional History.” There are, however, three underlying issues which I would like to address: our name, our curriculum, and our costs.
Abraham Lincoln rightfully noted, we cannot escape history.
Our institution pre-dates the formation of the United States of America. As a result, our institutional history highly intertwines with our nation’s history, which includes fierce battles over the issue of race and slavery. Today’s focus on racial issues has again brought attention to our University’s name.
Our University changed its name due to the generosity of the nation’s first president. Our name changed again to honor a university president that led the school’s recovery following the devastation of the American Civil War. In both cases, their service to the University was after their military service. Without the efforts of our namesakes, as judged by the school’s contemporaneous boards, none of us now living, in this country or this University community, would be having this conversation. We cannot forget, nor should we attempt to erase, these very basic facts, despite what flaws our namesakes possessed.
In each of the naming situations, our University faced the real, practical possibility of financial ruin. Today’s concerns regarding Lee’s name, as expressed in Toni Locy’s article, which appeared on thenation.com, and in your letter to the community, seem to rest on the presumption that “we are missing out on talent” and that it will “get increasingly hard to persuade high school students who care about diversity to attend a university named after a Confederate general.”
Independent and critical thinking are key parts of a liberal arts education. Other key aspects include asking the right questions and challenging assumptions. Therefore, I ask the following:
1) Does your statement that we are “missing out on talent” contain an implicit value judgement regarding the relative merits between groups of “talent?”
2) Does your statement that we are “missing out on talent” really hold in a world where there are 5.12 million private college students? Or, will we always be missing out on some talent while attracting other talent?
3) Is the success of higher education best measured by the initial talent level or the learning distance traveled by a student?
4) Are we in the business, as Ms. Locy suggests, of “persuading high school students” or “educating” students?
5) How is diversity defined? In short, is it “increasingly hard” or has it always been difficult to recruit students interested in “diversity” to a small, rural school?
6) What is the diversity of thought make-up of the faculty?
7) Finally, her comment that our university “bears responsibility for the mis-education of thousands of students,” despite her attempt to later soften the slight, is a complete slander on the alumni of our University. I think it is more reflective of her skills as a professor. Furthermore, her description of the student body as “white and loaded” is reflective of an animus toward current students, as she is judging them ironically on the basis of factors outside of their control. I trust that you and the board will address this, but personally I would not tolerate or employ someone who slanders my clients and my investors in a national publication.
I think it is in the curriculum and ideas that W&L should lead our nation in race relations. One of the things that attracted me to W&L was the history department, though I was not a history major. Given that African American history, like our school, pre-dates the nation, I think if we made it a goal to be THE recognized leader in African American History, we would be able to attract the desired diverse talent in a way consistent with our history and culture.
Equally, important, for those not blindly interested in cancelling Robert E. Lee’s legacy, an important curriculum change implemented during his tenure was the introduction of foreign languages beyond Greek and Latin. In a world of Google Translate, advanced AI, natural language processing, and other forms of machine learning, adding classes in machine language would be the modern equivalent of adding French, German, or Chinese. Thus, I would encourage you and the board to go further in incorporating computer languages into our foreign language requirements.
Finally, Ethics & Logic – I know you teach a course in ethics, but I am not aware as to whether this is a required class or an elective. Given the general decline in journalistic standards, and our society’s confusion between biblical/legal truth established on the basis of multiple, non-false witnesses, scientific truth established through hypothesis testing, and now the narrative truth standards of the internet, I think it is time Ethics becomes a mandatory class requirement.
The demographer, Neil Howe, recently wrote that “partisanship has become much more strongly intertwined with education, income, and race, with more affluent, educated, and nonwhite voters voting Democrat and working-class whites voting Republican.” As you and the board consider what that means for Washington & Lee University, I also ask that you and the board also consider the following: 25 years ago, when I graduated, the cost of one year of tuition was roughly equal to the average annual wage, even in my relatively poor home state of South Carolina. Today, the only places where that would be true would be major metropolitan cities. Therefore, I would strongly suggest that if the student body is not to be “white and loaded” as Ms. Locy so derogatorily states, then you and the board should focus on controlling costs.
W&L used to take pride in its affordability, but it seems W&L like most of higher education has lost its way since the expansion of federal loan programs. In addition to the tuition cost increases, I am concerned by what I have read in the news concerning what appears to be the University’s lack of due process, and losses associated with a recent lawsuit settlement. In trying to find the settlement amount, I then happened to notice the University is again in a Title IX associated lawsuit. Where are these liabilities disclosed to donors?
I have never been the biggest donor, but my wife and I had given consistently since our graduations until this past year. We decided not to give this year, as we have grown increasingly concerned about W&L’s fiscal stewardship and direction. In short, for the first time, when we asked ourselves whether we would want our teenage boys going to W&L, or if we would be willing to make the financial sacrifices necessary for them to go, we answered – we are not sure.
Allen R. Gillespie, ‘95
Response from Willaim M.S. Rasmussen, Class of ’68
TO: President William C. Dudley <[email protected]>
Rector and Washington and Lee Board of Trustees
As a graduate of and former professor and parent (son, class of 2001) at Washington and Lee, and an historian who has studied Robert E. Lee in depth, I feel compelled to write to you regarding the faculty’s recent extremist posturing. I believe that the University community should not be concerned with Lee’s Confederate past, which is not relevant to Washington and Lee; we should look only at his extraordinary performance while at the school. Unfortunately, attempts are being made to misrepresent that service. The historical facts show that Lee functioned admirably in Lexington as a major proponent of national reconciliation. This record seems to be lost on the general public, and sadly on a certain population of the current faculty.
As to Lee’s service in the Confederate army, I am told by current W&L parents that today’s student body is not perplexed by it. From your information to alumni, I see that Confederate history has not hampered the fruitful recruitment of minority students for the incoming freshman class. Surely we can pardon Lee for Confederate service if we can forgive George Floyd’s long criminal record by naming an endowment after him. Lee made great efforts to prevent the Civil War from ever happening, and when it did, he felt as trapped by the course of events as my generation was by the Vietnam War. Some would say that the latter was an evil war. Should participants in that failure be condemned? How about our ancestors who were drafted into the Confederate army; are we to condemn them as well?
I am dismayed by the superficial attacks being written by individuals who have never studied Lee’s entire life and thus have no insight into his character. They twist references and distort a few limited facts to fit them into liberal narratives. They fail to understand that it was Lee’s commitment to duty and to honorable activity that caused him to reject lucrative business offers and instead accept rector John Brockenbrough’s request to save a college that was near extinction and at the same time provide an example to the nation of how to accept reconciliation.
The current faculty should not simply bend to the will of current leftist politics without thoughtful deliberation. One wonders if some members ever took a relevant history course to study the real facts. They might read the chapter about Lee after the war in my book Lee and Grant (London, 2007), for which Washington and Lee University was a sponsor. There they will not find the superficial opinions of non-historians, but actual period letters that were even published in newspapers and that prove Lee’s huge influence in the reunion process. The book cites documents that prove the fragility of reunion when Lee was in Lexington, and that his influence on a national level was enormously more important than the few inconsequential accounts cited by some of Lee’s modern detractors. They attempt to color him as racist and to give importance to racial incidents in Lexington that had little to do with him and were ridiculously trivial in comparison to Lee’s national role. They cherry-pick incidents that suggest hatred similar to their own. How can you fairly cite bitterness such as that of William Lloyd Garrison but never mention Henry Ward Beecher’s praise for Lee and admission that he might have followed Lee’s path had he lived in Virginia. The detractors cut quotations short, and imply that they have not made such omissions, as, for example, with Lee’s testimony before Congress in 1866. Or they lay down their own conclusions as if stating facts. In Lee and Grant, the authors present facts as journalists are supposed to do—report, not function as opinion writers.
The Lee detractors might check out George Will’s “A Progressive’s Guide to Political Correctness,” which is humorous but also enlightening. Serious repercussions to the University’s culture and reputation may ensue if you and the trustees listen to the loud vocal minority while alienating the very large silent majority. If today’s smug virtue-signaling faculty members wish to erase Lee’s contributions to the university, where does this end, and who is the judge of who is morally superior, fair or just?
Do we want to erase or rewrite history? Do we support an education that fails to recognize the value of history? Do we not study the past to learn from our mistakes? I am reminded of a famous passage from Orwell’s 1984:
“Do you realize,” Winston says to his girlfriend, Julia, “that the past… has been actually abolished?… Every record has been destroyed… every book has been rewritten, every picture has been re-painted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped.”
Lee’s goal in Lexington was to promote harmony and the immediate reunion of the nation. He was extremely effective. As part of an ideological agenda that is based on “subjective” moral superiority, some of your faculty members are on a collision course to do the opposite. Their threatened, misguided action may prove to be just as effective, in promoting hatred and disunion.
Dr. William M. S. Rasmussen
Response from Chris Dalton, Class of ’97
I am a W&L graduate of the class of 1997, and I am writing to voice my strong opposition to changing the name of Washington and Lee University.
I recently read Dr. Rasmussen’s email to you, and I agree wholeheartedly with his vitally important point that “the University community should not be concerned with Lee’s Confederate past, which is not relevant to Washington and Lee; we should look only at his extraordinary performance while at the school.” That performance was, indeed, extraordinary, and it certainly warrants the honor of the school bearing Lee’s name.
I happen to be among the very small percentage of W&L graduates who served in the military; I am a United States Marine Corps combat veteran. I am keenly aware that, for four of his 63 years on earth, Robert E. Lee led troops onto battlefields to kill Americans who wore the same uniform I wore. I see no reason to celebrate that. But Washington College was not renamed Washington and Lee University because of Lee’s service to the Confederacy. It was named for him to honor his service to our school. Not only did he save the school financially, strengthen the Honor System, incorporate the local law school into Washington College, and completely transform and modernize the school’s curriculum, he (much more importantly) taught all of the college’s students, and everyone else across the former Confederacy who sought and followed his example, that they were to move forward as Americans, to expend their efforts to rebuild and strengthen our reunited nation. After the Civil War, he served our school and the American nation well. All of that deserves to be honored.
Instead of tearing down the legacy of our namesakes, our university has a unique opportunity to instill in its students, through those men’s legacies, the ability to challenge their own biases and preconceived assumptions. That is a skill that is far too rare these days.
In that spirit, I believe W&L should institute a course, required for all freshmen, that covers the history of the university, with an emphasis on George Washington and Robert E. Lee and what each contributed to the school, with thorough discussion of the context in which they each lived.
Regarding Robert E. Lee specifically, I will admit that I knew far less about him when I was at W&L than I do now. Having read a great deal about him in the years since, I think W&L is in a profoundly unique position to allow (i.e., require) its students to examine a complex American who did great things for the country (both before and after the war), led an honorable life, resurrected a university that we all love, but also chose the wrong side when faced with the most consequential decision of his life. Neither “side” in the surface-level debate about him is correct; he is not the “Marble Man,” but he is also not an evil man deserving derision.
How better to try to ensure that students learn to delve deep below the surface of the debates that rage around us than by forcing them to face the complexities of the men their school is named for? Sadly, America is becoming a country in which deep thought about difficult issues is becoming far too rare; far too many people are content to do nothing more than find and parrot rhetoric that confirms their own biases. A course that wrestles with the complexity of Washington and Lee, examining the good and bad in each man’s life (in the context that actually surrounded them) might make students think more than they otherwise would. I believe we’d produce even better graduates if we used our name and our history to force every student, no matter what biases they might show up with, to confront realities that contradict those biases. The complexities of Washington’s and Lee’s lives would likely do that.
I’m a pretty liberal guy, and I would, without hesitation, remove Confederate statues from public lands all across this country. The Confederacy does not deserve to be honored or celebrated, in my opinion. But I’m all for keeping the name Washington and Lee University. The two issues simply have nothing to do with one another.
Simply put, Washington’s and Lee’s contributions to the University warrant the honor of the school bearing their names. We will show our strength by demonstrating our ability to understand and explain nuance, rather than caving to the passions of the moment.
Thank you for your consideration.Very respectfully,
Chris Dalton ’97There are currently no comments highlighted.