President's Response to the Report of the Commission on Institutional History and Community

Related: Read President Dudley's message to the W&L community regarding his response to the report of the Commission on Institutional History and Community, which appears below.

To: The W&L Community
From: President Will Dudley
Date: August 28, 2018

Almost a year ago I delivered my inaugural address in front of Lee Chapel and reminded the audience that "We are justifiably proud of our distinctions, but never complacent. Our motto -- non incautus futuri -- not unmindful of the future -- reflects our commitment to self-examination, to asking how we can remain who we are while also getting better, to asking how we can contribute even more to the world in which our students will live their lives."

It was in this spirit that I appointed the Commission on Institutional History and Community. I was responding, in part, to the events in Charlottesville and questions that were posed in the aftermath about our university's relationship with Robert E. Lee. But those questions are not new, and we have a strong institutional interest in taking them seriously. Our prominent association with the Confederate general, if not well understood or explained, can be taken to signify that W&L is not a welcoming and inclusive community. Our future as a great liberal arts university depends not only on being a community in which individuals from all backgrounds can thrive, but also on being perceived to be such a community by prospective students, faculty, and staff.

I charged the 12 members of the Commission with identifying opportunities to improve the ways that we teach and present our history. Telling the many stories of Washington and Lee as effectively as possible is a powerful means of increasing the extent to which all members of our community feel fully included, and of overcoming potential misconceptions of the university. It is also an important public service at a time when our country is struggling to make sense of how its past continues to reverberate in the present day. Appointing the Commission was the first step toward accomplishing these goals, which will strengthen W&L.

The Commission and the Community

We are indebted to the faculty, staff, students and alumni who served on the Commission for their extraordinary efforts on behalf of Washington and Lee. They did not shy away from difficult topics and did not hesitate to make challenging recommendations. I admire their courage and candor.

I also admire the many readers of the Commission Report who submitted thoughtful and heartfelt responses. I have received and read hundreds of letters from alumni, faculty, staff, students, and friends of the university. Most praise our willingness to undertake this work, while also offering criticism and approval of particular recommendations.

Portions of the Commission Report struck powerful nerves within the W&L community. Passionate differences of opinion are to be expected. But we must not allow the polarized nature of our times to infect our community such that we fail to engage with each other respectfully and constructively on behalf of Washington and Lee.

We have to move forward together. This is not easy in an era that calls our core values into question. "Civility" has become a loaded word, redefined by some as a thin veneer of decorum used to uphold the status quo, rather than as the pre-condition of honest conversation, constructive self-criticism, and personal relationships that can withstand meaningful disagreements.

W&L is a place where people come together to engage in vigorous and civil debate. To fulfill our mission and prepare our students for engaged citizenship in a global and diverse society, we must provide an environment in which all members of our community are free to express their opinions and to learn by challenging themselves and each other. Mutual respect and open-minded inquiry may no longer be the norm in the wider world, but we will always strive to keep them at the center of Washington and Lee.

It is critical to remember that we have much in common. A number of universal themes emerged from the Commission Report and the responses to it. Members of our community share a fierce affection for the university, a desire to provide full and uncompromising accounts of our history, and an unambiguous commitment to remain true to our mission and to the distinctive strengths of W&L. I am heartened by these stances, which I personally share, and which will serve us well.

Institutional History

One of our notable distinctions is our history. W&L is the ninth-oldest institution of higher education in the United States. As my predecessor, Ken Ruscio '76, rightly observed, "our own arc of history traces that of our nation, from the founding period through the painful divide of the Civil War and up to the present time." Careful study of our institutional evolution since 1749 deepens our understanding of the modern world.

We will neither distance ourselves from our history nor oversimplify it. We must recognize the many people who have shaped this institution, and learn from the principles that guided them, the challenges they faced, the triumphs they enjoyed, and the setbacks they endured as they collectively made Washington and Lee what it is today. We will explore and share the stories of George Washington and Robert E. Lee, but also those of John Chavis and John Robinson, of the people enslaved at Washington College in the 19th century, of Henry Ruffner and George Junkin, of Letitia Pate Evans, Jessie Ball duPont, and Francis Pendleton Gaines, of Pamela Simpson and Sidney Coulling, and of many others. The history of Washington and Lee is the history of the educators, benefactors, students, and workers who shepherded the institution from its earliest years through the long course of its development and transformation.

These men and women made rich and varied contributions to W&L, and we need to remember who they were and what they did. We may not always agree about their relative significance or the wisdom of the choices they made. The point is not to sit in judgment, but to understand them in all of their human complexity and with an appreciation of the contexts in which they lived. The interminable messiness of historical inquiry is an educational virtue that advances our mission by honing the ability of our students to think freely and critically.

Educational Initiatives

Our educational mission was at the heart of the charge I put to the Commission, and the majority of the recommendations in the Commission Report center on that theme. These ideas also emerged as the area of greatest consensus in the responses to the report, with widespread support for telling our stories completely and honestly -- in our museums and historical sites, curriculum, orientations, alumni programming, and publications.

We require the leadership of a dedicated individual with the vision and expertise to accomplish all of this exceptionally well. This week we will begin a national search for a Director of Institutional History. We will seek a respected historian, with significant administrative experience, who will report directly to me and will lead our efforts to examine and tell our history in full.

The responsibilities of the new Director will include spearheading the design, construction, and operation of a new, modern museum devoted to the history of Washington and Lee and its many connections to American history. The Director will also oversee Lee Chapel, University Collections of Art and History, and all of our historical galleries and sites.

Partnering with faculty, students, the administration, and the Alumni Association, the director will develop and coordinate projects that will engage the W&L community with our institutional history. This work will include providing support for curricular development and student research, as well as taking advantage of digital technologies to produce a campus history walk and other interactive exhibits. The Director will ensure these projects explore and present the full scope of our history, including the university's connections with slavery. This will involve enhancements to the marker that recognizes the enslaved men and women who were given to Washington College by John Robinson and later sold by the college.

The Director will also pursue partnerships with other historical sites around the region -- such as Mount Vernon, Arlington House, and the American Civil War Museum -- that share our goal of providing public education of the highest quality and can help us realize the full potential of W&L's campus, buildings, and collections.

Diversity and Inclusion

Washington and Lee's new Strategic Plan, adopted by the Board of Trustees in May, emphasizes the importance of building a community in which individuals from all backgrounds are fully included and able to thrive.

The Commission Report, which was developed concurrently with but independently of the Strategic Plan, also stresses the need to intensify our efforts with respect to diversity and inclusion. The Commission offered a number of recommendations that have been established as university objectives in the Strategic Plan. These include a need-blind admissions policy, the expansion of the Office of Inclusion and Engagement, establishment of a physical center for its work in Elrod Commons, and the recruitment of more diverse applicant pools of prospective students, faculty and staff.

W&L has dedicated professionals in offices throughout the university -- including Admissions, Student Affairs, Academic Affairs, Human Resources, and Alumni Affairs -- who are committed to identifying and implementing the best practices for advancing these strategic objectives. Our staff regularly evaluate new ideas to determine whether they might make us more effective, and they will give careful consideration to the proposals put forth by the Commission, many of which are consistent with ongoing initiatives. The specific steps we take may differ in some respects from those suggested in the Commission Report, but our commitment to success on this front will be unmistakable.

Lee Chapel

Lee Chapel is a primary topic of discussion in the Commission Report and in most of the responses to it. Many view Lee Chapel as the physical embodiment of the Honor System and as the irreplaceable site of shared experiences that unite W&L across the generations. Others experience it as an exaltation of the Confederacy that divides us by making some members of our community feel unwelcome.

Undeniable is the fact that Lee Chapel has been central to the university for 150 years, as a place for prayer and reflection, and as the setting for Honor System orientations, convocations, distinguished speakers, honor society inductions, weddings and memorial services. Those who stress the ongoing value of the chapel emphasize its role in communal life and memory, the dignity that its architectural grace confers upon special events and occasions, and the importance of continuing to recognize the contributions of Robert E. Lee in rebuilding Washington College. Those concerned about the symbolism of the chapel object that the recumbent statue and the portrait of Lee in uniform make it difficult to participate fully in the life of W&L without also feeling that one is worshipping at a shrine of the Confederate South.

The Commission, well aware of these contrasting perspectives, reports having given serious consideration to two alternatives for Lee Chapel. One option would physically separate the original chapel from the 1883 addition that houses the Lee family crypt and the recumbent statue, with the aim of making it clear that university assemblies, which would continue to take place in the chapel, have nothing to do with venerating the Confederacy. The other option, which the Commission ultimately recommended, would make no physical changes to the building but would convert it to a teaching museum in which no other university activities would occur.

The fundamental challenge, which the Commission clearly recognized, is that the chapel and its later addition physically combine and conceptually confuse several distinct purposes. Lee Chapel provides, as it has done continuously since 1868, distinguished communal space for religious ceremonies and university events. The site is also a National Historic Landmark, dedicated to educating the public about the heritage of the United States. And the lower level contains a museum focused on teaching visitors about Lee's tenure as the president of Washington College.

Each of these purposes is essential, and all of them can be accomplished if they are appropriately distinguished from each other. We can and will continue to use Lee Chapel, as our community has done for a century and a half, in the service of the life of the university. We can and will continue to welcome visitors to Lee's tomb and memorial statue, while ensuring that university events do not feel as though they take place in a Confederate shrine. And we can and will continue to teach the history of W&L, including the history of Lee's presidency and the chapel he built, without converting the building to a museum that would be unavailable for any other purpose.

We will take care to preserve the historical value of the chapel and its later addition, while at the same time making certain that the space becomes one in which all members of our community can enjoy participating in important university events. The Director of Institutional History, in consultation with other experts as appropriate, will advise me and the Board of Trustees on how to reconcile these purposes successfully.

In my commencement address this May, I examined the long, complex, and fascinating history of the chapel since it opened in 1868. Although the building may strike us as frozen in time, it has always been anything but, with its architecture, decoration, and traditions modified by each generation for its own needs. Awareness of this continual evolution is liberating. It teaches us that while we should be respectful of those who preceded us, we should have the courage -- and indeed we have the obligation -- to enact thoughtful changes that will strengthen W&L. Robert E. Lee understood this teaching well, daring to transform a classical college into a modern university because he knew it was what the future required, and daring to entrust each generation of students with administering the Honor System according to the standards of its own time.

Lee conceived and built the chapel as a plain and simple space in which the college community could gather for religious services and academic functions. He never imagined the chapel would become his family's final resting place, much less that it could be perceived as a monument to the Confederacy. Lee almost certainly would have opposed both of these developments. His personal modesty would have generated strong resistance to making himself the focal point of the chapel. And he expressly argued against the creation of Civil War memorials, rightly believing they would perpetuate division and impede national reconciliation and prosperity.

The future we face calls us to recapture Lee's initial vision for the chapel. Lee Chapel can yet again be, as it originally was, a graceful, unadorned place of assembly that is welcoming to all members of our community. The addition that houses the recumbent statue and Lee family crypt can remain intact and open to the public, but functionally separate from the chapel's assembly hall. The particular uses of Lee Chapel will be determined, as they are now, by the individuals and groups responsible for organizing events and selecting the venues most suitable for them. University organizations are neither required to use, nor prohibited from using, the chapel. We will continue to use Lee Chapel as the site of Founders Day, a commemorative occasion established in the bylaws of the university, and of other special events. Actively claiming the space for significant communal assemblies is more powerfully inclusive than avoiding it.

The Executive Committee of the student body, in keeping with W&L's fundamental commitment to student self-governance, retains the authority to determine the location of its annual honor orientation. Honor orientations have long been held in Lee Chapel, but it was not always so. Some of our alumni were oriented to the Honor System at the Liberty Hall Ruins. Others received their introduction to the Honor System far from campus, at Freshman Camp in Natural Bridge. All of these W&L graduates, no matter where they experienced orientation, regard the ideals of the Honor System as the centerpiece of their education. Current students feel the same way, and we will trust them, as students have long been trusted at Washington and Lee, with the administration of the Honor System.

Our Name and Our Namesakes

We are Washington and Lee University. The explanation of how George Washington, in 1796, and Robert E. Lee, in 1870, came to be the namesakes of our university is straightforward and remains compelling. Washington and Lee were figures of national significance whose direct impact on this institution was pivotal to its survival and success.

I did not ask the Commission to consider the name of the university, or the names of our buildings, but it is understandable that these issues arose in the course of its examination of the ways that the presentation of our history affects the community.

The Commission recommended that we continue to be Washington and Lee University, and that our nickname continue to be the Generals. The Board of Trustees, which has authority with respect to naming, and of which I am a member, agrees.

The legacies of Washington and Lee, along with those of many prominent Americans from the Revolutionary and Civil War eras, are discussed and debated by every generation of citizens and scholars. Attempting to settle these debates was not the Commission's assignment, nor is it the university's role.

As an educational institution, W&L is committed to fostering and conducting meticulous scholarship that carefully assesses the individuals and events that have shaped our university and our nation. Intellectually honest consideration of our namesakes cannot separate the generous benefactor from the slaveholder, or the forward-thinking college president from the Civil War commander. Our aim is neither to deify nor to demonize, but to understand on the basis of well-considered evidence, and to render praise and criticism on the basis of well-justified argument. These are the core practices of liberal arts education. Applying them to our own history advances our mission by developing the intellectual capacities of our students, improves our institution by encouraging constructive self-criticism, and serves the public by contributing to conversations of contemporary importance.

The Board of Trustees has also confirmed that Lee Chapel and Lee House will retain their names. Many university buildings are named for the presidents with whom they are most strongly associated. Robert E. Lee conceived the chapel, raised the funds for its construction, presided over its opening, and attended daily services within it. Lee Chapel appropriately bears his name. It is also common custom on campus and in Lexington for houses to be named for the families who lived in them first or longest. The home occupied by all university presidents since 1869 was built by Washington College for the Lee family, which lived in it for nearly 30 years. Lee House appropriately bears their name.

The Board will continue to discuss, at its October meeting, other issues raised by the Commission's report, including the naming of campus buildings.

Our Mission and Our Motto

Our mission guides us in everything that we do. We educate young people so that they can contribute to a better future. We do this not by telling them what to think or how to view the past, but by cultivating their intellect and character in the company of capable peers and teachers.

The study of history is especially conducive to this task. Such study is most effective when well-informed people with diverse perspectives engage with each other in forthright conversations. The W&L community fosters such conversations by valuing mutual respect, which allows all voices to be heard, and open-mindedness, which encourages opinions to be revised in light of evidence and argument.

Disagreements about the most plausible historical interpretations and conclusions will inevitably persist. But our common participation in the educational enterprise at Washington and Lee enhances our mutual understanding, admiration, and affection. This experience leaves our students better prepared to make a difference in the global and diverse societies in which they will live and work.

Education is a long game. We have been playing it since 1749, never perfectly, but always dedicated to improvement.

President John Wilson, in the Founders Day address he delivered four months after the first female students entered Washington and Lee, attributed part of the distinctive "genius" of the university to its being "a place, for all its reverence for the past, which combines a fidelity to continuing form and lasting purposes with a high tolerance for change -- especially when change is seen as faithful to, and supportive of inherited values, and not change for the sake of innovation or a spurious currency."

This remains W&L's genius. Our enduring principles shape every generation of students and are, in turn, shaped by those students. The Honor System remains central to the university after more than 175 years, sustaining the community of trust that defines our campus. And we are steadfastly committed to providing an education that prepares students for lives of consequence, even as the world our graduates enter continues to change.

To continue making progress, we must trust each other, work together, and focus on how to help rather than on whom to blame. We should take pride in the good work this institution has accomplished, and celebrate the quality of our community, while always looking for opportunities to improve. Let us focus on what we can achieve today, being not unmindful of our impact on future generations at Washington and Lee and on the world that they will have a hand in shaping.

Non incautus futuri

William C. Dudley