“We have but one rule - that every student must be a gentleman.”
— Robert E. Lee
Controversial Policies and Alumni Alienation

Controversial Policies and Alumni Alienation

By David Hotze ’21,

Each year, the Washington and Lee Treasurer’s Office makes its financial statements available, which present data on items such as the current status of the University’s assets, liabilities, and donations.  Based on the released statements regarding donations to the Annual Fund, a downward trend seems to be emerging in total undergraduate alumni participation. 

The Washington and Lee Annual Fund is a yearly capital campaign that subsidizes every aspect of the operations of the University, forming 7.5 percent of the University budget through donations given largely from both alumni and parents of current students.  The University maintains that without this capital from the Annual Fund, student tuition would increase by $4,897 every year.

Since 2013, total undergraduate alumni participation in the Annual Fund has fallen steadily, decreasing from 54.7 percent to a low of 50 percent in the 2017-2018 academic year.  From personal experience, W&L has one of the most engaged, active, and supporting networks of alumni, which makes this steady drop in alumni giving particularly disconcerting.

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This data is not to suggest that the University is struggling to meet its goal for the Annual Fund.  In fact, since 2012 the annual total of funds raised has risen each year, from the $8.72 million raised in 2012-2013 to the $10.85 million raised in 2017-2018.  Moreover, this fund is different from the endowment fund, which has consistently received gifts of around $15 million during the past few years.  Rather, the major point to be made is that the Annual Fund statistics imply that aggregate alumni support to the University may be decreasing.

Alumni of universities ordinarily decide to donate in order to give back to their college, help share with future students the experience and the values they encountered during their attendance, and to show gratitude for the education that was provided to them.  Gifts support currently enrolled and future students by helping to pay for operations, create new facilities, and other essential expenses.  The reality that total W&L alumni participation in the Annual Fund is declining hints that alumni are feeling disconnected from a university they used to call home.

Recent actions taken by both the W&L Administration and Board of Trustees may have influenced and provided impetus for the deterioration of total alumni participation in financial support of the University.  In 2014, the Administration removed reproductions of the Confederate flag from Lee Chapel in an attempt to placate students who felt that the University was promoting racism and slavery.  In May of 2018, Washington and Lee released the report of the Commission on Institutional History and Community, convened in 2017, which contained 31 recommendations for how W&L should change the way it teaches and represents its history.  Later that year, the Board of Trustees decided to act on some of these recommendations, including removing the portraits of Robert E. Lee and George Washington in military uniform and replacing them with portraits of the two men in civilian clothing in Lee Chapel, renaming Robinson Hall and Lee-Jackson House to Chavis Hall and Simpson House respectively, and closing the door to the statue chamber in Lee Chapel during University events.  

Unquestionably, both the Board and President Dudley’s decisions on these matters have caused discord within the W&L community, with some alumni and students alike concluding that the University is both censoring and retreating from its history, values, and traditions in an attempt to mollify the moral outrage of students who feel emotionally threatened by the harsh realities of history.  The administration’s embracement of revisionist history and its endeavors to obscure the past to protect students from perceived emotional stress are not going unnoticed by alumni, as evidenced by the creation of groups such as the General’s Redoubt, who are distressed with the direction that the University is taking.  The steps taken in 2018 reaffirmed for many alumni that W&L has slowly been retreating from its values and traditions without regard to and at the expense of its time-honored bonds with alumni.

Regardless of whether one agrees with the Administration’s recent changes and initiatives, there is a growing sentiment among alumni that the University is failing to live up to its history and values that they experienced as undergraduate students.  The Annual Fund’s declining alumni participation rates seemingly confirm that these views have had an impact on alumni support of their alma mater.  All the same, the University needs to give serious consideration to both their actions and the mounting alumni disapproval of W&L’s trajectory as together they will likely prove disastrous for long-term institutional health.

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