Mindful only of the Future: W&L Admissions Strikes Lee Chapel from University Tours
By Ben Gee '18
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.
I will be resoundingly clear: this policy is wrong, and ought to be reversed as soon as possible. More than any other building on this campus, Lee Chapel belongs in University tours – and removing it will negatively impact the quality of these tours, character of the University, and welfare of Lee Chapel itself.
Last week, concerned students reached out to the Office of Admissions to ask for clarification on this policy and the reasons for adopting it. The justifications given by Admissions to support its decision are misguided at best, and utterly ludicrous at worst.
First, Admissions claimed that there are better places on campus than Lee Chapel to discuss the honor system’s critical importance in student life. This is simply not true. No better place exists than Lee Chapel to explain what the honor system is, how it functions, and why it sets W&L apart from other schools. From the beginning to the end of a student’s experience at Washington and Lee, Lee Chapel and the honor system go hand in hand. During orientation week, the Executive Committee explains inside Lee Chapel to the incoming First-Year class the duties and responsibilities placed on us by adherence to the honor system. When the EC convicts a student of an honor violation, they can choose to take their case before a jury of their peers in Lee Chapel, where the resulting honor trial epitomizes the weight and significance of the honor system. The chapel’s uniquely reverential space provides the necessary atmosphere for adjudicating matters of honor, as we students decide what constitutes honorable conduct in our community. Any person who has attended an open honor trial can readily identify Lee Chapel’s solemnity as indispensible to the experience. No other space on campus bears such a direct, critical, and defining role in our honor system. I would challenge Admissions to provide another location that better captures honor’s importance at W&L, and the seriousness with which its students maintain their responsibilities in that system. There is no other.
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. This reasoning falls equally short. Lee Chapel is far more essential to Washington and Lee’s identity than any number of fashionable CGLs or ostentatious housing complexes. By privileging modern spaces over older, venerable ones like Lee Chapel, W&L sends the harmful message that it values fancy newness over time-honored tradition.
University tours are a great deal like extended advertisements. In order to best attract prospective students, schools proudly display the qualities that makes them “stand out” from the dizzying crowd of colleges and universities across the country each clamoring for their attention. Consequently, the things that each school incorporates into their tours reflect what it considers most attractive, meaningful, and unique about its campus. Washington and Lee, it appears, apparently believes that the sleek glass windows and wide-screen televisions of the Center for Global Learning are more likely to impress and attract students than Lee Chapel’s deep history and vitality in student self-governance. This Admissions decision cynically concludes that college-aged students value flashy technology above timeless art, apartment buildings above aged museums, and flexible rolling chairs above delicately constructed nineteenth century pews.
I politely disagree with this view. I have faith that prospective college students are not only impressed by computers and ergonomically arranged study spaces, but also by the grand modesty of a place like Lee Chapel, a building unlike any other, which makes W&L stand out from its peers in decisive and meaningful ways. The Center for Global Learning may be a well-constructed classroom area, but colleges across the country have similar spaces of their own. To prospective students on tour, the CGL does not stand out, no matter how proud W&L is of its newest classroom building. However, no other school can lay claim to Lee Chapel’s fully distinct historical heritage and role in campus life.
As former President Robert E. Lee’s final resting place, the chapel holds a key piece of both American and University history; at the heart of W&L’s honor system, the chapel also protects one of the country’s oldest and strongest collegiate honor codes. I refuse to believe that Washington and Lee would make itself more remarkable by diminishing these qualities for the superficial, common perks contrastingly offered by newer buildings like Third Year Housing and the CGL. Far from a secondary interest on our campus, Lee Chapel ought to be the crowning gem of any University tour, the place that was and remains so important to the construction of our University character.
Many students, myself included, keenly remember our own tours of W&L, and how those tours influenced our eventual enrollment at Washington and Lee. For many, the interior of Lee Chapel was the highlight of that tour. I still remember the wonder and respect that the chapel’s elegant indoor ambiance inspired, and how my great respect for the chapel influenced my later decision to matriculate at W&L. Talk to other students or alumni, and they would tell you the same thing. For prospective students, Lee Chapel serves a profound role in convincing future students that W&L is a school worth attending.
Another concern arises. If this policy continues, Lee Chapel will experience a drop in the amount of visitors, one of the metrics used to apportion funds to the Chapel for its maintenance and preservation. By signing in as they enter, prospective students and their families help conserve this historically significant space for future generations of W&L students to use and appreciate. However, this source of funds will evaporate if student tour guides no longer enter the chapel, which has caused considerable worry among Lee Chapel’s caretakers and officials. To ensure the robustness of Lee Chapel’s maintenance budget, the helpful presence of patronage from tour groups should be sustained.
In its decision to remove Lee Chapel from University tours, Washington and Lee’s Office of Admissions made a great mistake that ought to be reversed as soon as possible. This policy was adopted with good intentions in mind, but its consequences will both leave much to be desired and much to be lamented. Therefore, I strongly encourage Washington and Lee University’s Office of Admissions to restore Lee Chapel to the official tour route. This effort extends far beyond the pages of the Spectator – it touches all members of the University community alike, from current students to alumni, faculty, and other staff. If you are interested in changing this policy, there are people you can contact; direct concerns to VP of Admissions Sally Richmond (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Associate Dean of Admissions Leonard Satterwhite (email@example.com), or call the Admissions office number at 540-458-8710.
Lee Chapel is the centerpiece of our University’s historical heritage, and its importance reaches into all our lives as participants in this University community. It firmly belongs in tours of this campus, and always will so long as we value what it stands for.