Erasing History: The Commission’s Report
Hayden Daniel (’19)-
On May 18, 2018, President William Dudley released the Commission on Institutional History and Community’s report. President Dudley created the Commission on Institutional History and Community in August 2017 in response to the violence that resulted from the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville. The Commission was charged with examining “how the ways we teach, discuss, and represent our history shape our community.” Made up of members the faculty, staff, student body, and alumni community, the commission took to its task with commendable zeal by researching the university’s history as well as interviewing over 1,000 students, alumni, faculty and staff over a nine-month period. The commission’s report included 31 recommendations on how W&L could teach and represent its history. Some of these recommendations are positive and commendable, but others, if implemented, represent an existential threat to the traditions and history that make Washington and Lee University a unique and venerable institution. Though President Dudley assured the W&L community that the recommendations presented in the report were merely recommendations and not set policy decisions, the nature of these recommendations demand that they be addressed and repudiated now. If they are not and these policies come to pass, then it will be too late to stop them from irreversibly changing the identity and character of Washington and Lee University. In truth, some of the recommendations presented in this report represent the consummation of an ongoing leftist effort to sever the connections between Robert E. Lee and Washington and Lee University as well as to transform W&L from a university that values honor and tradition into a cookie-cutter clone of other liberal arts colleges that value diversity for diversity’s sake, the deconstruction of Western values and civilization in favor of moral relativism, and the effacement of historical figures and events that are inconvenient to their utopian vision. In summary, this report challenges the very identity of Washington and Lee University.
The first recommendation offered by the Commission on Institutional History and Diversity is straightforward and desirable: make the Commission report public. President Dudley was absolutely correct to notify the W&L community of the publication of the report, though it was slightly inconvenient that it was released on the last day of the academic year when most students are finishing up their Spring Term classes or packing up their rooms to head home for the summer. Many alumni, students, and faculty dedicated their time to providing feedback to the members of the Commission on Institutional History and Community, so it would have been a great offense to keep the report private and deny them the opportunity to view the fruits of their labors.
Many of the first recommendations offered by report are benign and even beneficial to the student body and the alumni community. Recommendation No. 2 advocates for the creation of a freshman orientation program that would educate students more fully on the complete history of the university while Recommendation No. 3 calls for the same sort of program for the alumni. Continued research into the lives and contributions of enslaved persons, as requested by Recommendations 7, 8, and 9, are also positive steps available. The proposal to research further into the lives of black W&L students in the 20th century is also a welcome one, along with the recommendation to create a summer program that would educate middle school or high school students about the history of Washington and Lee. The Commission also suggests that Washington and Lee should partner with historically black colleges to initiate an exchange program that could better attract minority students to study here. All of these measures intend to increase the perspectives of Washington and Lee while also providing greater educational opportunities to the W&L community, and we commend them for it. Any recommendation that attempts to broaden and enhance the history of Washington and Lee should be adopted and executed by the university. The Law School would also benefit from a few of the commission’s recommendations. The suggestion to strive for greater diversity in the law school, to be achieved in part by appointing a Law Diversity Counselor, and to shed light on civil rights matters through the creation of a Law Center on Civil Rights and Racial Justice is also a positive initiative. Many of the early recommendations seem to be based on a genuine desire to increase awareness of W&L’s history and enhance it by exploring deeper into the stories of those who have been overshadowed.
However, some of the proposals regarding the descendants of the enslaved persons briefly owned by Washington College in the 1820s and 1830s raise some concerning questions. In Recommendation No. 9, the commission notes several possible actions after a school-hired genealogist researches and identifies the descendants of those enslaved people acquired by W&L when John Robinson left 73 slaves to Washington College in his will in 1826. One of those actions would be to create a college fund for those descendants to fully fund their secondary or college education. The school that those descendants attend would not necessarily have to be Washington and Lee. This possible action raises the specter of reparations and raises a few important questions that would have to be asked before such a plan could be enacted. What would be the descendance threshold for descendants of those enslaved persons? How closely related to those enslaved persons would someone have to be to claim the benefits of the college fund? If they would not necessarily have to attend Washington and Lee, where would they go, and which institutions should W&L pay for? Is it just for W&L to use money from student tuition or alumni donations for this fund when those students or alumni did not participate in the slave system or did not have ancestors who participated in the slave system? The commission does not go into enough detail on this proposal to warrant a full discussion of the questions and concerns that a college fund would raise, but the above questions are ones that we must discuss if President Dudley decides to consider this course of action. The commission also advocates for the creation of Diversity Cabinet in Recommendation No. 12. There are absolutely no details about the makeup or function of the Diversity Cabinet in the recommendation, but the possibility of an appointed shadow government of diversity-minded central planners bent on artificially manipulating the ethnic makeup of the student body in order to fill a diversity quota should be viewed with suspicion. Let it be clear, it is the lack of detail on the Diversity Cabinet that should cause concern, not necessarily the creation of such a cabinet.
The Commission on Institutional History and Community begins its malicious and unrelenting assault on Robert E. Lee and his legacy with Recommendation No. 10. Recommendation No. 10 calls for the relocation of honor orientation and the signing of the Honor Book from Lee Chapel, which the commission refers to as merely “the chapel,” in order to “ensure the credibility of the Honor System.” To suggest that the Honor System’s credibility is threatened by its ties with Lee Chapel is ludicrous. The Honor System has been intrinsically linked with the Lee Chapel for generations. In fact, for many, Lee Chapel is the physical embodiment of the Honor System and the values that it represents. The commission suggests that the honor system be relocated from Lee Chapel in order to separate the Honor System both physically and ideologically from Robert E. Lee. In its report, the commission points out that the Honor System was not founded by Robert E. Lee; it predates him by almost twenty years, and that the dominant position of Lee in conversations surrounding the Honor System provides an inaccurate and even problematic picture of the System. True, Lee did not establish the Honor System at Washington and Lee, and there are many common myths about Lee and the System propagated by alumni, students, and faculty that need to be rectified, but, once again, Lee is often so intrinsically linked with the Honor System that his person becomes a personification of the values that the Honor System attempts to instill in the W&L community. Lee’s statement, “We have but one rule, that every student must always be a gentleman,” encapsulates the meaning of the Honor System, and until the creation of the White Book that statement was regarded as the closest thing to a codification of the Honor System. Even if Robert E. Lee did not establish the Honor System at W&L, the example he set for contemporary and future students makes his, and by extension Lee Chapel’s, separation from the Honor System an impossibility.
The Commission on Institutional History and Community goes on to insult Lee’s character and achievements with Recommendations 10 and 24. In the former, the commission recommends referring to Robert E. Lee as President Lee rather than General Lee in university publications and websites while the latter calls for the removal of all portraits depicting General Lee in his Confederate uniform and their replacement with portraits of him in civilian dress. Both of these suggestions are unnecessary and offensive to Robert E. Lee as they deny him the respect of his proper rank and title of general. One may argue that Lee is not worthy of retaining the rank of general or of being shown wearing his general’s uniform since he served as a general in an army that was in rebellion against the United States government, but the United States government itself does not see it that way and chooses to acknowledge the general rank and title of Robert E. Lee. When Robert E. Lee was summoned to Congress in 1866 to testify in a hearing on the state of former confederates, he was addressed by the congressmen in the hearing as general even though he was president of Washington College by that time. The Robert E. Lee statue that stands in the Capitol’s National Statuary Hall depicts Lee in his Confederate uniform, and one of the portraits of Lee displayed in the National Portrait Gallery shows Lee in the Confederate gray. If the United States federal government, the government against which he rebelled, holds enough respect for Lee to refer to him by his general’s rank and depict him in his Confederate uniform, then the institution that houses his remains and bears his name should have enough respect for his life and achievements to refer to him by his general’s rank and depict him in his general’s uniform.
Also, one could use the same arguments against referring to Lee as General Lee and depicting Lee in Confederate uniform against referring to George Washington as General Washington or depicting him in his Revolutionary War uniform. Washington was given his rank of general by a legislature that was in open rebellion against its legal and legitimate government, the government of Great Britain, and any depiction of George Washington in his Continental Army uniform is depicting George Washington as an armed traitor fighting against his legitimate government. If we begin to refer to Lee as President Lee instead of General Lee and depict him only in civilian dress, how long will it be before we refer to George Washington as Benefactor Washington or remove all paintings of him leading the Continental Army?
One of the most egregious initiatives put forth by the commission is the recommendation to completely convert Lee Chapel from a centerpiece of student life on campus into a museum where no university event would take place. Lee Chapel would no longer host first-year orientation, the Honor Book signing, Founders Day Convocation, induction for Phi Beta Kappa or Omicron Delta Kappa, or guest speakers. All of these events will instead be held either in Evans Dining Hall or a new space to be built on campus to supplant Lee Chapel per one of the commission’s other recommendations. The commission rationalizes its recommendation to turn Lee Chapel into a museum by stating that the Chapel as a museum offers a great opportunity to educate students about the Lost Cause ideology, which the commission states is championed by Lee Chapel. When the commission says that it wishes to convert Lee Chapel into a museum in order to educate visitors on the Lost Cause narrative, it really means that it wants to create an exhibition within Lee Chapel that will further discredit and marginalize Robert E. Lee on this campus. By presenting Lee Chapel as a center-point for the Lost Cause, it makes it easier for the university to justify its actions to distance itself from the structure and from the man buried there. Lee Chapel was built with the intent to be used as an assembly space for the student body, that is why it was left unconsecrated for a few years after its construction, and it should remain the focal point of this university. Lee Chapel is a hallowed place, but not in the Lost Cause narrative sense that the Commission on Institutional History and Community believes it is. It is a hallowed place because it is the first place where freshmen see the Honor System in practice, and it is the first place where they sign their name to the Honor Book and put their own personal honor to the test by making that pledge. Lee Chapel contains a special atmosphere that comes from sitting in the same seats as generations of W&L students and being in the presence of the man who arguably best represents the values of the Honor System that no new building, no matter how diverse or inclusive, can reproduce. For many students there is a visceral connection between the Honor System and Lee Chapel, and that connection must be preserved for future generations so that they will gain the same appreciation for the Honor System that past students have gained. In its subsequent recommendations, the commission lays out an intricate plan to implement the transition of Lee Chapel to a museum, so the recommendation to abandon Lee Chapel as a central location for the Honor System must be taken seriously and resisted with all available resources.
Over the course of the commission’s research, the subject of renaming the school garnered the most controversy in all of the W&L communities. Some believed that the university must rename the university in order to rid itself of the problematic history associated with Robert E. Lee and attract more diverse students while many others protested that a renaming of the university would be tantamount to erasing history. Fortunately, the commission decided not to recommend that the university change its name in Recommendation No. 25. Additionally, it also resisted changing the name of W&L sports teams, the Generals. However, both of these recommendations contained an extremely important caveat. The commission recommends that the university not change its name at this time. This opens the door for future exploration of the possibility of renaming the school, especially when considered alongside the next few recommendations.
Despite advocating against renaming the university, the commission does advocate for the appointment of a renaming committee to consider renaming several buildings around campus that could be problematic for the new progressive agenda of the university. The three buildings to be at the forefront for review by the proposed renaming committee are Lee-Jackson House, Lee House, and Lee Chapel. The creation of a naming committee to consider the renaming of certain buildings is yet another effort to efface the history of W&L and to advance a progressive agenda that aims to destroy any signs of “problematic” history and foster an environment of artificial diversity for diversity’s sake. The names of each of the buildings that are recommended for review by the commission are integral to the history of W&L and the history of those individual buildings. Robert E. Lee, the man who saved the school and revolutionized the curriculum, built and is buried in Lee Chapel. He also lived out his last years in Lee House. To remove his name from a place so integral to his post-Civil War life would be a travesty that not only insults Lee but also reveals how little regard we have for our own history. The Lee-Jackson house would seem to be a special case since Lee did not live there and Thomas Jackson is most often associated with our neighboring institution, VMI. However, Jackson lived in the Lee-Jackson House while he was married to the daughter of the president of Washington College, so Lee-Jackson House represents an important component of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s story.
Once again, many of the recommendations suggested by the Commission on Institutional History and Community are positive steps toward educating students and alumni on the rich history of W&L, but the commission also engages in a concerted attack on Robert E. Lee, his legacy, and his place at this university. It wishes to totally divorce Lee from the institution he had such a crucial role in shaping because of the current prerogatives of political correctness and a desire to increase the ethnic diversity of the university so that W&L will look more like the northern liberal arts colleges it wishes to emulate. However, in the process of trying to conform to the standards of a modern progressive college campus, Washington and Lee risks sacrificing those things that make it stand out from those relatively identical schools. It risks utterly destroying the special connection that students have with the Honor System by separating it from the place where it has lived for over a century. It risks selling its soul of tradition and history for the ultimately vacuous and vague modern notions of diversity and inclusion. Finally, it risks erasing the history and tarnishing the legacy of man who has inspired countless students to pursue lives of consequence and honor. A man of civility and honor both on the battlefield and in the classroom, Robert E. Lee is deserving of far more respect from an institution that bears his name and owes so much to his achievements. We must resist the efforts to erase our history and destroy our traditions, or we will quite literally cease to be Washington and Lee University. I call upon all those who are members of the W&L community who wish to see W&L remain the unique and special place that it is to call, email, or write President Dudley and urge him to reject the most radical recommendations made by the Commission on Institutional History and Community.