University Board Votes to Keep Robert E. Lee’s Name

Despite a push last year to strip the name of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee from the Virginia school, its board of trustees voted 22-6 on Friday in favor of keeping its current name.

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Washington and Lee University, the private liberal arts school in Virginia, will not change its name after a monthslong review over whether to remove its reference to the Confederate general Robert E. Lee, the school announced on Friday.

The school’s board of trustees voted 22-6 on Friday in favor of keeping its current name, which developed as an acknowledgment of a donation given by George Washington in the 18th century and Lee’s tenure as school president after the Civil War. The vote came after a nearly yearlong review of the school’s name and the symbols connected to its history and campus surroundings in Lexington, Va.

Last July, amid nationwide protests against racial injustice and debates over Confederate monuments and emblems, the university’s board of trustees received requests from students, faculty and alumni calling for changes at the school. Those included requests to rename the institution itself and alter the design of its diploma, according to the university.

“Over the past year, we have engaged in deliberations over these requests and other important issues relating to diversity and inclusion on campus,” the university said in a statement. The school added that it had “found no consensus about whether changing the name of our university is consistent with our shared values.”

“We have been guided by our responsibility to ensure the university’s future success in a complex and changing world,” the university added.

Originally founded as Augusta Academy in 1749, the university has repeatedly changed its name during its history. It became Liberty Hall Academy in 1776, and Washington College in 1813, after the first president gave it a significant financial gift.

The school’s board of trustees invited Lee to lead the college in August 1865, only months after he surrendered in the Civil War.

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His legacy and that of another Confederate leader, Stonewall Jackson, have loomed over Lexington for well over a century. Both men are buried in the small college town — as are members of Lee’s family — and their names have been visible throughout the city, including on the former Robert E. Lee Hotel, now called The Gin Hotel, and the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery, now known as Oak Grove Cemetery.

But in recent years, attitudes about the city’s famous Confederate forebears, who both owned enslaved people, began to change. In 2017, the Grace Episcopal Church removed Lee from its name. In 2019, the local Boy Scout council removed Jackson’s from its council name. And last year, as cities around the country re-evaluated imagery and symbols of slave owners, 79 percent of Washington and Lee’s faculty voted to strip Lee’s name from the school.

University officials said they had heard from more than 15,000 students, faculty, staff, alumni and parents who shared their perspectives in surveys, letters and listening sessions.

“We have listened carefully and are grateful for the thoughtful manner in which you have shared your views and experiences with us,” the university said.

The board did decide to make one name change. Lee Chapel, where the former Confederate general worked and attended services, will be renamed University Chapel in keeping with its original 19th-century name of College Chapel.

The board said it would oversee and approve interior changes to restore its unadorned design and to physically separate the auditorium from the Lee family crypt and a Lee memorial sculpture. In addition, the school’s Founders Day, which was traditionally held on Robert E. Lee’s birthday, will be discontinued.

The university also said it would adopt a new design for its diplomas, removing some images. Student degrees have traditionally featured the portraits of Lee and Washington, who also owned slaves.

Additionally, the university said it would create a board committee on diversity, equity and inclusion to “bring additional perspective to our work and help us oversee, direct and support the administration’s initiatives.”

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