Mike Pressler, W&L Alumni, and University Integrity
By Ben Gee The relationship between a university and its Alumni, on the surface, should mainly be a mutually beneficial one: A school advocates for and boasts of its Alumni’s achievements, while Alumni keep their Alma Mater as a constant source of assistance and security. However, in today’s society, schools can be known to partake in the unfortunate practice of “Alumni-erasing”, or dissociating themselves from Alumni whose connection to the school is deemed detrimental in certain influential circles. This happens all too often - schools expunge their connections to “negative” Alumni on a common basis, from unpopular political figures to outright criminals. And recently, even W&L has been implicated in this very harmful process.
Sixty Minutes ran a featured segment late this April, a segment that landed W&L harmfully in the national spotlight – the unceremonious mistreatment of the former star Lacrosse Coach at Duke University, Mike Pressler, back in 2006. Three of his players were accused of raping a stripper, with a corrupt DA (who was later disbarred) going on numerous television shows to state his complete certainty in the players’ guilt and to call for their immediate dismissal. Pressler did not publicly condemn nor release the players in question, knowing of their innocence and standing up for them by refusing to give in to tremendous illicit outside pressure – so naturally, Pressler himself became mired in the alleged guilt brought against the three players, ultimately resulting in dismissal from Duke University.
After this happened, nobody would hire Mr. Pressler again, as he carried a torrent of bad press with him wherever he went. According to Coach Pressler, though, he hit “rock bottom” when his Alma Mater, Washington and Lee University, refused to meet with him on campus - relegating him to a mere rest stop meeting in Lynchburg VA. Pressler was appalled that W&L would treat him that way by presuming his guilt and bowing to national pressures, especially in how he is an Alumnus – to him, a very disloyal action. W&L turned its back on an Alumni who needed the help of this institution, the help of his school, and this is a reason for great concern.
Below the CBS.com article, another W&L Alumni named Lester Sanders, MD gave his reaction to the situation, declaring: “I am ashamed to be a Washington and Lee alumnus. Over the years, I have often told people about the honor code at W&L. Never again.” It is a shame that W&L betrayed an Alumnus like Mike Pressler, especially for being a school like ours that claims to instill the same qualities in its students that it neglected when the going got tough. Washington and Lee University should stand by its Alumni and its students against injustice and slander, regardless of how difficult it may be – this is the true test of institutional integrity, honoring an exercise in reciprocity that we as students faithfully uphold our part through living by the Honor System and maintaining loyalty in our own lives after graduation.
Washington and Lee is not like other schools – it is a great bastion of traditional values, a passionate advocate for the concept of honor, and a unique stronghold of student self-responsibility - commitments that date all the way back to our namesakes, George Washington and Robert E. Lee. W&L also boasts one of the nation’s premier alumni networks, ensuring a living and vibrant community of connected leaders across every field and class year for each and every Alumni and current student. In the Mike Pressler situation, Washington and Lee University compromised all of these commitments, all these values –in an effort to protect itself from unwanted negative press. Ironically, the real source of “wrong” in W&L’s actions back in 2006 was its abandonment of Coach Pressler, joining legions of misguided Americans who believed that allegations weighed heavier than the burden of proof, and made an inward decision that self-preservation means more than integrity.
Hopefully, W&L’s administration has learned from the Pressler debacle and if in a similar situation today, would stand by an Alumni as its should. Only time will tell if it has learned its lesson, but us students can also serve as a source of loyalty towards other members of the larger W&L community. It is only right that we step forward to give back when necessary, to a community that has and will continue to give us so much.