The Admissions Lee Chapel Coverup: An Effort to Save Face
By Ben Whedon ‘18
Our Spring issue last year was one of particular controversy. In early April, an article by our former Editor-in-Chief, Ben Gee ’18, broke the news that the Admissions office had removed the interior of Lee Chapel from the walking tours of campus. He reported their ostensive rationale that the school wished to de-emphasize the history of the school and instead promote the new aspects of campus such as the CGL and Upper-Division housing. In the article, Mr. Gee called on our readers to make their voices heard and oppose the decision by the administration. I am glad to say that student and alumni support propelled that article to be the most successful in the publication’s history and caused the reversal of the decision. University Tour Guides are once again taking prospective students into Lee Chapel.
We might have been content to let the matter lie, basking in our victory, had it not been for the disreputable conduct displayed by the Admissions office in their response to our allegations. Public and private statements made by the deans to students and alumni were entirely inconsistent, most of them deliberately ambiguous though were some outright falsehoods. The besieged Admissions staff, in an effort to weather the storm of community outrage, tried to cast doubt on our story and to paint The Spectator as fake news. While most of our readers saw through this deception, our reputation did suffer. Hence, response is warranted. When we break a story of such magnitude, we do not do so without definitive confirmation of the details. What follows is an in-depth exposition of the evidence in our possession which will prove not only that Dean of Admissions Sally Richmond ordered the removal of Lee Chapel from the tours, but that she also directed her staff to actively deny the move and mislead the community when faced with the strong backlash from students and alumni.
The volume of evidence consists primarily of email exchanges between persons material to the discussion, the public statements made by current and former Admissions employees, and the official minutes of the office meeting wherein the decision to remove Lee Chapel was made. All documents discussed in this article can be viewed in their entirety on our website via hyperlinks embedded in the chronology below. Please note that, at source request, material in the Admissions minutes pertaining to individual applications unrelated to this discussion have been censored for the purposes of confidentiality. All documents mentioned in this article were obtained through legal means. The chronology of events is listed below.
02/27/2017 – Admissions minutes record plans to remove Lee Chapel
03/12/2017 – Lucy Wilkins emails her work studies in Lee Chapel informing them that Admissions has ended tours to the chapel
03/30/2017 – Tour Guides President Cierra Wilson emails the tour guide staff telling them not to enter Lee Chapel
03/30/2017 – Assistant Dean of Admissions responds in email to Emory Cox detailing the plans for the removal of Lee Chapel
04/07/2017 – Ben Gee’s article comes out on Lee Chapel
04/07/2017 – Tom Andrew (an alumnus) writes a letter to Dean Richmond explicitly referencing the Spectator and receives a response from her denying the allegations we make
04/08/2017 – Dean Richmond responds to Emory Cox and explicitly denies the removal of the INTERIOR of Lee Chapel from the tour
04/11/2017 – Official Statement from Admissions released
08/22/2017 – Paqui Toscano’s article for the New York Times released
There are two issues in question 1) Did Admissions remove Lee Chapel from the tour as we reported? 2) Did they deny it when faced with the pushback? We will begin by proving that the change in the Admissions tours did occur as we reported. Mr. Gee’s article, published April 7th, 2017, begins as follows:
“On March 30, W&L Tour Guides received a blunt command from the Office of Admissions: Cease bringing University tours into Lee Chapel. Admissions instead advised guides to briefly stop outside the Chapel, or to recommend their groups to arrange separate tours of the Chapel for later on during their short stays in Lexington. Under this new policy, Washington and Lee will no longer include Lee Chapel in its admissions tours for visitors and prospective students.”
This statement makes it unequivocally clear that we take issue with the removal of the interior and acknowledged that the tour continued to pass the exterior of building. The first piece of evidence to corroborate this came from the University Tour Guides. On March 30th, a week before our article’s release, Tour Guide President (Mary) Cierra Wilson emailed the entire tour guide staff with the following:
“FYI, we are no longer entering Lee Chapel on tours. You can talk about the honor system and such outside of the chapel below the steps. If families are interested in seeing it, encourage them to visit it and tells them that it is open for visitors after the tour and info session.”
On its own, this should be enough to assert that the policy was put into effect, though it leaves open the possibility of miscommunication and the question of intent. In order to more fully grasp the situation, especially the question of who ordered the change, we delved further into our investigation. Then-SJC Secretary R. Emory Cox, a duly-elected official of the student body, made an independent inquiry into the policy when made aware of it before the article’s publication. His correspondence with Assistant Dean of Admissions Jonathan Webster resulted in a detailed response in which Webster affirmed the change and offered the following reasons (edited for length):
“The current tour does not systematically feature our newest spaces on campus, like the CGL (they go in there right now, but it’s not integrated with the overall tour message yet), or other key spaces like Lenfest or the renovated Colonnade buildings. The Village is hard to include, but we’re talking about ways to feature it best. The Tour Guides spend time talking about the honor system in Lee Chapel, but we don’t feel that is necessarily the only or even the best place to show & discuss how the honor system actually impacts students. Plus, going in there right after the tour starts is a momentum killer, in that the routine at present is to launch the tour, and within 5 minutes go in there to sit down and talk for 10-15 minutes, depending on the guide. This doesn’t leave enough time to visit & discuss some of the spaces I mentioned above, and others.”
Lee Chapel is a “momentum killer” and “doesn’t leave enough time to visit & discuss” the CGL and The Village. If this is sounding familiar, it is because it is exactly the motivations Mr. Gee espoused in his article. Here are a few excerpts:
“First, Admissions claimed that there are better places on campus than Lee Chapel to discuss the honor system’s critical importance in student life.”
“A second claim made by Admissions regards time restraints for University tours. Lee Chapel, they claim, takes ‘too long’ to include in tours, as guides ought instead to prioritize flashy new spaces like the recently finished Center for Global Learning and Third Year Housing.”
Even further, Lucy Wilkins, the Director of Lee Chapel sent an email to the work-study students in the building informing them that the tours would no longer enter the Chapel. This is an action that could stem only from an official directive. Her message is shown below.
“I received word today that the Admissions tours will no longer be coming inside the Chapel, but will stop briefly outside. Because of all the new buildings, they just don’t have time to cover everything in an hour tour. The guides will emphasize the importance of the Chapel to prospective students and parents and will encourage them to visit the Chapel and Museum. This will impact our numbers of course, so we will have to make the change clear in our records.”
Why would Ms. Wilkins issue this email if it wasn’t true? Simply put, she wouldn’t. While all of this should decisively confirm that our assertions were in fact accurate, I feel compelled to share with you our most damning piece of evidence largely because it will play into my arguments that the Admissions staff attempted to deny our allegations later on. This is, of course, the official minutes from the Admissions department meeting which occurred on February 27th, 2017 in which the Deans made the decision to drop Lee Chapel. There relevant excerpt is below:
“Concern from Beau Dudley – e-mail that we are prohibiting Tour Guides from showing Lee Chapel. Do what you can to answer concerns and send any that need to be addressed to Sally. We ARE redesigning the tour route and we ARE recommending stopping in front of chapel but not going in.
a. Lopsided tour that was previously over-emphasizing of history when we have CGL and third-year housing. “We feel that it’s important to show the Ruscio Center for Global Learning” and are trying to get them to show perspective of third-year housing. Need to find ways to talk about the past while telling who we are today. Spend too much time on encapsulated history.
b. Honor code is not visual and they go in and sit down and talk about honor code and there are trained hosts in the chapel should people want to go back to it.”
Naturally, I had a field day upon uncovering this piece of evidence. It was rather perfect that the word “are” was capitalized twice. The Chapel was removed in favor of CGL and Third-year housing, exactly as our article claimed. Of this, there can be no doubt in light of the evidence.
Let’s turn now to the question of the coverup. When we broke the news in our article, Mr. Gee implored readers to write in their objections to the policy and to hound Admissions until it was reversed. Thank you again to the supporters who made that happen. On April 11th, the Admissions office issued a formal statement addressing the decision. In their explanation, they blamed the entire thing on a miscommunication. Here are the highlights:
“First, Lee Chapel was never removed from the campus tour. Nor would it ever be.”
“In February, our conversations with the University Ambassadors [tour guides] included a suggestion that guides walk through or stop in front of Lee Chapel, rather than seating tour groups inside for a 10-minute discussion, as is the custom of many of our Ambassadors. This suggestion was translated, inaccurately, into an instruction not to enter the space. We regret that this was the way some interpreted the message, since this was not our intent. Rather, our goal was to allow time for tours to visit more spaces on campus in an effort to meet the expressed interests of our prospective students while still highlighting our history and its connections to the Honor System.”
So according to Admissions, the directive from the Tour Guides President to the other Tour Guides was faulty. Let’s revisit that:
“FYI, we are no longer entering Lee Chapel on tours. You can talk about the honor system and such outside of the chapel below the steps. If families are interesting in seeing it, encourage them to visit it and tells them that it is open for visitors after the tour and info session.”
This seems awfully familiar doesn’t it? Remember the lines from the Admissions department meeting?
“We ARE redesigning the tour route and we ARE recommending stopping in front of chapel but not going in.”
“Honor code is not visual and they go in and sit down and talk about honor code and there are trained hosts in the chapel should people want to go back to it.”
I’d like to be fair to the school. I’d like to believe that this was just a failure to communicate on their part. Explain to me though, how the almost verbatim relay of a directive and justification from the Admissions department minutes to the University Tour Guides can possibly constitute a miscommunication? Moreover, did they entrust the same person to inform Ms. Wilkins in Lee Chapel or were there two separate miscommunications? I somehow doubt that a student would be assigned the authority to relay messages of administrative policy to a different department. I further doubt that an Admissions officer would fail to accurately describe their intent to two different parties and give the same faulty impression to each. It seems a bit farfetched. The truly damning evidence is in the contradictory statements made by Admissions to different individuals before issuing this official statement. In the days immediately following our article, Dean Richmond attempted to address individual inquiries with a generic response letter. Let’s return to Mr. Cox who answered our call to action and sent an opposition letter to Admissions upon reading our article. Alumnus Tom Andrew ’63 took a similar action. They received an identical form response barring a personalized heading. Dean Richmond’s email, dated April 7th in both correspondences, included these highlights:
“A visit to the Lee Chapel interior is not being removed from the tour. What is changing (and will be in full effect post- Spring Term 2017) is the sequence of the tour route.”
“And while Tour Guides will continue to share details about the Honor System inside Lee Chapel, this new progression allows them to introduce the honor system in its full effect throughout the hour.”
This is a blatant contradiction with the official statement and the other documents show thus far. It asserts that the INTERIOR of the chapel was not stricken from the route. Moreover, it implies that the visit to the interior remained part of the mandatory route. The official minutes also contradict this. The emails and the official statement simply cannot both be true. It raises several questions. If her response to Mr. Cox and Mr. Andrew are true, then the official statement is a falsehood and Admissions misled the public while affirming the truth to an individual current students and alumni. That makes no sense. The converse scenario is also troubling. If we take the official statement at its word, then the Dean chose to mislead a duly-elected representative of the student body and an alumnus about the policy before claiming a simple miscommunication three days later. This also makes no sense. If the Dean knew it was a simple miscommunication, then why mislead these gentlemen about the entire situation? The most likely scenario is that the department thought they could individually placate irate community members at first and, failing that, concocted a plausible story, in effect, making patsies of the University Tour Guides and their officers especially.
All this evidence became secondary in August of 2017 when Paqui Toscano ’16, a recent graduate and Rhodes scholar, penned an article in the New York Times addressing the issue of Confederate statues. Mr. Toscano explicitly discussed the article in The Spectator and asserted that Admissions did order the removal of Lee Chapel from the tour. Paqui remained on campus despite graduating in December of 2016 and worked for the Admissions department as a “Seasonal Reader,” an official position of employment, until leaving to pursue his studies in Oxford. His article unequivocally convicts the Admissions Department, as he was privy to the decision-making process. The relevant excerpts of his article are shown below:
“This year the Washington and Lee admissions department instructed Tour Guides to avoid showing the Lee Chapel Interior to prospective students and families. There were a number of logistical reasons for this change: to showcase newer buildings and minimize the amount of time groups spent sitting inside the chapel, rather than actually touring the campus. But many people, including myself, also supported the policy because of that life-size statue, which makes Lee look like some sort of religious figure. It suggests a degree of lionization that isn’t associated with most college presidents, let alone the famously treasonous.”
There you have it: an explicit and full admission of our claims by a former member of the Admissions Department. What more could you need?
The evidence speaks quite strongly. The Admissions office did remove the interior of Lee Chapel from the tour in favor of the CGL and Third-year housing. They clearly communicated their intent to both the Tour Guides and to the Lee Chapel officials. The email sent by the Tour Guide President and by the Director of Lee Chapel accurately reflect the sentiment and justifications for the policy described in Dean Webster’s email and in the official minutes of the department meeting. There was no miscommunication. The official statement made by the department in response to our article is in clear contradiction with the form letter that Dean Richmond sent to the email inquiries made by the community. There can be no doubt that the administration attempted to run damage control by casting doubt on the integrity of a student publication.
I didn’t write this get anyone in trouble, though I feel an apology is warranted. I wrote to defend the honor of an organization I love and to which I have dedicated much of my past four years, The Spectator. It is my most fervent hope that people will view the administration with greater scrutiny after this episode and that the university will be more transparent in the future. If ever there is doubt about the accuracy of our articles, know that you can trust in the truth of what we say. I will close by saying that the culture of honor and integrity that we value here at Washington and Lee rests with the commitment of the students to those ideals and not with those outside-hired administrators who have no vested interest or faith in it. Continue to question everything and keep reading The Spectator, W&L’s only reliable source of substantive news.